Lady Charlotte's First Love
Anna Bradley continues her Sutherland Sisters series with a very readable but also very old school portrait of a reckless lady with a broken heart and the solider who loved her once upon a time.
Lady Charlotte Hadley has been behaving in a gradually more madcap manner since her husband met a tragic end, gambling recklessly in an attempt to fill the void. After learning that Charlotte has taken a dare alongside a group of female friends to enter a brothel (wearing a mask, of course), light a cheroot, and stay there for as long as it takes for the cigarette to burn out, Charlotte’s sister Ellie and brother-in-law Cam call in Julian West – an old associate of Charlotte’s and also Cam’s cousin – to hunt her down before she disgraces herself completely. It is, as Julian knows far too well, a task that’s easier said than done
Julian and Charlotte had a tempestuous romance during Cam and Ellie’s courtship, one that ended abruptly when Charlotte overheard a private conversation between Cam and Julian from which she learned that Julian had seduced her in order to aid Cam’s plan to blackmail Ellie into marriage. Charlotte promptly entered upon a respectable marriage and Julian entered the army, returning from Waterloo scarred, filled with shame, and hailed as a hero. With Ellie pregnant and ill, she and Cam must leave the city before winter sets in, and with Charlotte associating with the possibly felonious Lord Devon and on extremely thin ice with the ton, it’s up to Julian to keep her out of further trouble.
Charlotte is less than pleased to be confronted by her heartbreaker of an ex and proceeds to parry his thrusts, tit-for-tatting him from gambling house to theatre to society party. The chemistry between them remains potent, but old hurts and misunderstandings continue to keep them apart, and has pledged himself to the sister of one of his fallen comrades . A lot of misunderstandings lie between him and Charlotte, but their desperate love just might be what each of them needs to heal.
Lady Charlotte’s First Love is not a romance for one who likes gentle love stories involving healthy communication. It’s a long, dark, sad story that enraptures the reader nonetheless. Operatic and downright gothic in its passions, the whole tone and pace of the novel feels like a Rosemary Rogers throwback to those days when Steve and Ginny would slap and kiss one another.
This couple doesn’t come to physical blows, but Charlotte and Julian are not easy people to love. Complex, certainly, and often sympathetic; full credit to Ms. Bradley, it’s not easy to write about the deep nature of grief and how it causes us to lose our true natures; and she treats both the trauma Julian faced on the battlefield and the losses Charlotte experienced on the domestic front with equal gravity. For that alone, the book wins a minor recommendation from me.
But there’s a downside to that dark passion, those real-feeling, adult themes, and it impacted my grade more than anything else in the book: these two adults, grappling with adult situations, lost in their own misery and grief, are so utterly terrible to each other throughout the majority of the book that it’s hard to imagine them as a couple. They do actually reconnect before the ending (of course), but it’s such a long trip to get to that point, and for most of the book they spar and dare and push at one another like two wounded lions. It’s brutal to watch, and often not very romantic until the reason for Charlotte’s reckless behavior eventually dawns on Julian and he, finally, finds the courage to talk about his nightmares. I liked Charlotte’s chemistry with Lord Devon much, much more, and he behaves toward her with much more caring, consideration and honor than Julian manages to show for several chapters.
Some might be annoyed with Charlotte’s empty recklessness, but it’s impossible not to side with her. A degree of comic relief is provided by Charlotte’s team of engaging widow friends, who amuse themselves just as recklessly as she does and gossip energetically (one, Annabel, steps up to defend Charlotte in a way that clearly sets her up as a future heroine; I’m looking forward to her book) .
Julian is your classic alpha hero with a broken heart and battle scars; if you like your romantic heroes more Heathcliffe than Darcy you will love him. While he’s no monster, his arrogance does grate at turns.
Bradley’s storytelling style is appealingly rowdy, engaging and heartbreaking; she’s another Catherine Coulter – early Coulter, the one who wrote gothic romances. Her research shows well throughout as well.
Again, this is a very old school read, so if you like your romances filled with dark, tragic heroes and pushy, headstrong heroines, you might like Lady Charlotte’s First Love just a little more than I did. And even though it took a long time for the romance to percolate, I still think it’s worth a read.