There are more and more older titles being put back into circulation as authors and publishers republish their back catalogues electronically, and I certainly enjoy being able to access such titles easily and without having to search used-book shops for dog-eared copies or pay a fortune in postage for those hard-to-find books I can only find overseas. When reading, it’s interesting to see how such novels stand up several years on; for example, I recently listened to an audiobook version of a book published in the late 90s which I felt hadn’t stood the test of time, and I’m sure we have all revisited books we loved ten, twenty years ago that now leave us scratching our heads wondering why we liked them so much.
Fortunately, Lady in Blue is very much not that sort of book. I haven’t read it before, but I’ve read a number of reissued titles by this particular author, and have thoroughly enjoyed them all. This was no exception, and in fact, exceeded my expectations. I was gripped right from the opening pages, and found it to be one of those books I absolutely hated having to put down to do mundane things like eat and empty the washing machine!
The opening is harrowing without being graphic as we are introduced to fifteen-year-old Bryn Talgarth who is caring for his terminally ill father, the Earl of Caradoc. Caradoc has never been a stable figure in his son’s life, having frequently been absent in the pursuit of his dissolute lifestyle. Three years previously, however, he returned home to Rivers End, the family estate on the Welsh borders, the syphilis he had previously hidden now at an advanced stage. Bryn does the best he can, employing a couple of servants by day – but he is his father’s sole carer at night, and given the nature of the illness, Bryn never knows whether the earl will be docile or abusive. I was hooked completely by this point – the writing is very atmospheric and darkly pervasive, and I was eager to see where the story would go following Caradoc’s death.
We then jump forward twenty years to London, where Bryn is now a very wealthy man of thirty-five. After burying his father, he sold everything he could, except River’s End, and used the proceeds to buy himself the education he never had, and then to buy a stake in a shipping company.
His intelligence and natural flair for business amassed him a great fortune by the age of twenty-eight and he is now one of the wealthiest men in the country.
His father’s final words to him were Do what you want and Bryn has pretty much done just that. His final promise to the dying earl was that he would restore the family fortunes (which he has done), restore the family home, marry, and set up his nursery to continue the Caradoc line – all of which he has so far neglected to do.
Bryn has not spent the intervening years living chastely, although his horror of ending up like his father means that he seeks long-term mistresses who come to him as virgins. His long-standing friendship with a well-known madam has ensured him a ready supply of such young women, but Madame Florette has chosen the worst possible time, from Bryn’s point of view, to announce her retirement. His most recent mistress has just left him, and he does not trust anyone else to be able to find him another woman who will meet his most important requirement.
Madame Flo points out that it’s past time for Bryn to find himself a wife, and that if he chooses from the latest batch of debutantes on offer, he’ll have no trouble finding himself an untouched bride. But he is still reluctant to marry, even though he knows he must, and soon. As a parting ‘gift’, Flo agrees to introduce him to one last virginal candidate – a young woman named Clare, who may agree to be his mistress for the sum of ten-thousand pounds.
Used to having everything he wants drop into his lap, Bryn is not best pleased to hear that Clare may not choose to become his mistress, but even so, is intrigued enough to want to meet her.
Their first meeting does not go well. Clare is very poised and self-possessed and Bryn, still smarting at the thought that she may have the audacity to refuse him, treats her in a very demeaning way. But she needs the money desperately and this is the only way she can think of to acquire such a large sum, so she does not allow him to see her dislike.
The story that follows is rather different from your run-of-the-mill “I need lots of money to support my family so I will sell my body” story. I mean, yes, that’s the basic premise, but from their initial meetings – when Bryn comes across as a heartless bastard – Clare finds the prospect of sleeping with him extremely distasteful, despite the fact that he’s a very attractive man. But Bryn quickly realizes he’s acted like an overbearing idiot and begins to try to make amends. He also makes it clear to Clare that he wants more from her than sex. She’d assumed that she’d spend a night with him and then leave with her ten thousand guineas (the price went up after she met him and decided he was an arrogant arsehole!). But Bryn wants an actual relationship – he wants someone he can talk to and enjoy spending time with as well as someone he can take to bed whenever he wants to, and the more she comes to know him, Clare realizes that she could actually come to enjoy his company.
I really enjoyed the way their relationship developed. Clare is keeping secrets from the start – she won’t tell Bryn her real name or anything much about herself, and for the most part, he accepts that. Bryn finds the first real happiness he’s known when he’s with her, and as she begins to relax and allow herself to enjoy being with him, Bryn begins to unbend a little, and tries hard to be less demanding and to curb his arrogance. There’s a wonderful line early on in the book about the fact that although Bryn had to grow up quickly due to having to care for his father, he’s still immature in many ways; and the way he tries so hard to make up for his mistakes and strives to be a better man for Clare really highlights that facet of his character. He’s generous and considerate towards her – realizing she is nervous about having sex with him, he decides to wait until she’s ready, even though he’s practically climbing the walls!
Their relationship is not without its problems, but for the most part, Clare is the perfect foil for Bryn, able to take him down a peg or two verbally when he gets too high-handed.
I also have to give Ms Kerstan extra marks for the scene in which Bryn’s knowledgeable housekeeper sits Clare down and takes her through an array of the available methods of contraception. Such things are often not referred to in historical romances, or mentioned only obliquely, and I found it not only interesting, but realistic, as women in Clare’s situation had to prevent pregnancy in order to keep their positions.
Things are further complicated when the unpleasant Giles Landry sets his sights on Bryn as a son-in-law. Elizabeth Landry is a pleasant and intelligent young woman, and given that Bryn knows he must marry someone of good birth, he thinks he might as well marry Elizabeth as anyone. Even though it’s fairly obvious to the reader that he has already fallen head-over-heels in love, he doesn’t realize it and is still doggedly determined to follow through on his plan to make a marriage of convenience in order to beget his heirs, while continuing to spend most of his time with Clare. Men of Bryn’s class didn’t marry their mistresses, so that possibility doesn’t even occur to him, until an almost fatal incident opens his eyes.
Lady in Blue was a fabulous read from start to finish and I was really sorry when it ended. The writing is warm and intelligent; there is a lot of humor, and the relationships between Bryn and his friends – Robert, Isabella and Claude – were very well written and there’s a real sense of shared history and camaraderie between them. Bryn and Clare are two prickly people who find it difficult to trust, and I liked the friendship that grew between them as much as I enjoyed the romance. Clare is a mystery to begin with, but gradually the layers are peeled away, and we learn how conflicted she is about her chosen path and her growing feelings for Bryn. And Bryn. . .well, he starts out seeming to be cold, arrogant and selfish, but is nothing of the kind. His immaturity shows in those moments he loses his temper when things don’t go his way, but underneath, he is a kind and considerate man who wants to love and be loved in return.
If I have a criticism, it’s that the ending of the story was a little rushed, but it didn’t spoil my enjoyment at all. This book is definitely going into my “keeper” collection.
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