This, the tenth in the author’s Pennyroyal Green series, is a bit of an offshoot from it, as neither of the principal characters is a Redmond or an Eversea – and also perhaps a little bit of an exercise in delayed gratification, as fans of the series continue to await the final book, due out later this year.
That said, though, It Started With a Scandal is much more than an inconsequential filler slotted in to pass the time before the main event of Lyon and Olivia’s book; it’s a thoroughly enjoyable story with a Jane Eyre-ish vibe, featuring two people who don’t quite belong finding that together, they’re a perfect fit.
Lord Philippe Lavay is a member of the once powerful Bourbon family, and so is, in effect, French royalty. By the time this story takes place, he has lost most of his family and property to the Revolution, and is now fiercely determined to regain his family home and prestige while at the same time supporting the variously dispersed members of his family.
He is on the point of being able to re-purchase his home from whoever bought it after it had fallen into revolutionary hands, having spent years at sea and supplementing his income with covert work undertaken for the British government. Following one such mission, Lavay was attacked and badly wounded, and has removed to Pennyroyal Green in order to recuperate – and he is now faced with a difficult choice. One final mission will pay him sufficiently well as to enable him to reclaim his home and return to France, although given his physical condition, it’s not really much of an option. The alternative is for him to marry the money he needs in the form of the beautiful, self-assured Lady Alexandra Prideux, who would make him the perfect wife.
With his focus so firmly on difficult choices and on trying to deal with the amount of pain he is in, Lavay’s household goes its own way; the house is unkempt and his servants lazy. Upon the recommendation of Violet Redmond – now the Countess of Ardmay – Lavay interviews Mrs Elise Fountain for the post of Housekeeper, and engages her for a two-week trial.
Elise has recently been dismissed from her post as a teacher at Miss Endicott’s School following some malicious gossip, perpetrated by one of the pupils there, that her six-year-old son – Jack – is illegitimate. Elise cannot approach her family for help because they disowned her when she told them she was pregnant, so she must work to support herself and Jack. Immensely relieved at having – even temporarily – secured a position, Elise metaphorically rolls up her sleeves and gets to work, very quickly making it clear to the servants that their easy life is at an end, but winning them to her side with a mixture of good-humour and fairness that promises the sort of stability which is essential for the smooth running of the household.
I said at the beginning that the story has a “Jane Eyre-ish” vibe to it, and that comes from the relationship that springs up between the wounded nobleman and his servant – although of course, Elise is a housekeeper rather than a governess. Lavay is grumpy and rather forbidding at the outset, but there’s a wickedly dry sense of humour lurking underneath, which reminded me very much of Rochester as he plays verbal games with Jane. And like Jane, Elise gives as good as she gets, even as she admits that Lord Lavay is just a little bit scary – although not because of his ill temper or tight control. What frightens Elise is the way she responds to him; her past experience left her pregnant and abandoned, so she is naturally wary of forming an attachment which, given their relative stations in life, can only lead to more heartache. But even as her head gives her reasons to keep away, her heart can’t deny the strength of the attraction building between them, and of the way she wishes, just once, to have someone to lean on and to see her as beautiful and charming.
It Started With a Scandal is an absolute delight from start to finish, and is definitely going on to my keeper shelf. The central characters are wonderfully characterised and perfect for each other, even though they come from very different spheres of life. Level-headed and determined, both have a strong sense of responsibility to others – Elise puts her son’s welfare above her own happiness, and Philippe is prepared to sacrifice his so that he can take care of those who depend upon him. Their loyalty and honour is balanced beautifully by their innate kindness and by the playful side of themselves they rarely allow others to see. They also have in common the fact that they are both adrift, neither of them quite fitting in with any particular echelon of society. Elise is well-born, but has had to take employment in order to support herself and her son, and Lavay feels out of place among his peers, people he comes to realise are as unbending now as they ever were.
The romance is a delicious slow-burn, full of sexual tension and wonderfully witty banter which, I readily admit, is my drug of choice when it comes to romance reading. But the book is so more than that – even as Lavay and Elise trade quips, they are becoming attuned to each other so that they learn almost as much about each other from what they don’t say as what they do. Their conversations are as laced with poignancy as with wit, which is one of the things that elevates this story from being a mere “feelgood” romance with lots of great, sexually-charged banter to being something far deeper. One particular moment pin-pointed this for me – a conversation about home which shows the importance of such a thing to both characters. Eloise lost hers when her parents disowned her and Philippe lost his in a much more violent way, but eventually they both come to see that home really IS where the heart is.
It Started With a Scandal is a beautifully written, character-driven romance, full of warmth, charm and depth – and I loved every minute of it.
Buy it at Amazon/Apple Books/Barnes and Noble/Kobo
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