Into Temptation is a very smoothly-written book, with a flawed but likable heroine and a lot of emotional complexity. Unfortunately, the dynamic that arises between the hero and the heroine set my teeth on edge.
Julian Rexley, Earl of Wolfram, is infuriated to learn that his sister Letitia has run away from home and taken refuge with Sophia Morelle, Dowager Marchioness of Aberly. Many years ago, when they were young and foolish and extremely attracted to one another, Sophia and Julian were scandalously caught half-naked together. Believing (not without reason) that Sophia deliberately trapped him, Julian flatly refused to offer to marry her. Soon afterward Sophia married the wealthy Aberly, and Julian felt that he’d barely escaped the grasp of a fortune hunter. He has spent the last several years despising her.
Sophia loved Julian back then, and his actions – ruining her reputation and then refusing to restore it by marrying her – shattered her heart. In order to salvage her reputation she was forced to marry the manipulative Aberly, who enjoyed crushing her spirit. Now widowed, she lives at the financial mercy of her repulsive brother-in-law. According to the terms of her husband’s will, her allowance may be cut off entirely if she is touched by the least bit of scandal. The brother-in-law hopes to do exactly that, forcing Sophia to become his mistress.
Into this situation storms Julian’s annoyingly spirited sister Letitia, who is bucking and whinnying because Julian, her guardian, wants her to marry (and isn’t that ironic). Letitia has a secret; she tells Sophia all, but forces Sophia to promise to tell Julian nothing – which puts Sophia in an extremely awkward position as her relationship with Julian begins to grow warm once again.
Now, in Regency England as presented by the hundreds of romance novels I’ve read, to ruin a woman’s reputation and then not marry her was a very serious offense. As a result, Sophia certainly might have expected to be thrown out of her home and forced into poverty. That she was able to marry a marquess would have seemed a miracle of biblical proportions, even if he was a lousy husband. Julian’s anger is understandable, but his refusal to marry Sophia was the act of a dishonorable cad, and his resentment of Sophia’s subsequent marriage spoke to me of sheer unmitigated gall. I did not like him.
It’s interesting the way the author deals with the fallout Julian’s offense. Sophia forgives him surprisingly easily, I thought, but is naturally wary of trusting him. It takes Julian a while to realize how bad his behavior really was, but when he does his guilt is genuine. And this leads to the continuing conflict between them. Not once but twice, something negative happens to Julian and he assumes, wrongly, that Sophia engineered it in order to get revenge on him. Twice. The first time he has some reason, but the second time it’s pure scapegoatism. Both times, he later explains that the reason he reacted badly is that he cares about Sophia so much. Oh, that makes it okay then. I saw no reason to believe that this sort of thing would not continue to happen to them throughout their marriage.
Conventional romance novel wisdom goes like this: man treats woman badly, so he should have to work that much harder to win her. In this book, Sophia and Julian both are initially at fault; neither has a clear conscience. However, it falls out that she has to work that much harder to win him, while he continues to treat her like garbage. There’s even a scene, after Julian dumps all over Sophia, in which a wise old friend of Sophia’s tells her that Sophia is at fault for not loving him enough. Excuse me?
The driving force behind this novel is Sophia’s love for Julian. It is her reckless, impetuous desire to have him at any cost that first sets their relationship in motion; it is her more mature love that allows her to forgive him and let him back into her heart. But why does she love him? I never knew the answer to that. She finds him handsome, but that’s all. Julian and Sophia do not actually seem to know each other all that well, which cemented my impression that their entire relationship was built upon attraction, responsibility, and guilt. I realize that in real-life relationships there are usually no clear cut good guys and bad guys, and it’s a complex process for a couple to come back from heartache and betrayal. I respect author Smith for trying to capture that complexity. Unfortunately, I thought her hero’s actions were frequently petulant, spiteful, and hypocritical. And though I liked Sophia, I couldn’t understand her feelings for Julian. This book is written very well and its characters came to life for me. Given Julian’s behavior, this is not necessarily a good thing, and it’s one reason I found the HEA ending totally unbelievable. No matter how well written, if you can’t count on the ending, what have you got?