Moonlight and Mischief
I was very afraid, when reading the opening chapter, that this was going to be another young-woman-offered-as-a-gambling-debt-collateral kind of book. Thankfully, Rhonda Woodward quickly alleviated my fears and instead I was treated to very nice fish-out-of-water story.
The Earl of Haverstone, known as “Stone” to all, just lost a good deal of money playing cards. Afterwards the young, hero-worshipping Steven Thorncroft suggests that Stone may want to consider marrying his sister – who has a very large dowry – and proceeds to issue an invitation to a house party so that Stone can look her over. Slightly inebriated, amused, and knowing that the amount of money lost didn’t even put a small dent into his fortune, Stone declines but invites Steven and his sister to his annual Autumn house party.
Several months later, the entire Thorncroft family, save the father, a wealthy mill owner who cannot leave his business for an extended period of time, shows up on the earl’s doorstep. Stone vaguely remembers inviting young Thorncroft and again, choosing to be amused, makes them welcome. Mariah, our heroine, is mortified and embarrassed and there only because her very ambitious, title-seeking mother has compelled her.
It is very clear from the beginning that the Thorncrofts do not fit into Stone’s circle and that this is not a family party. Mrs. Thorncroft is the only mother there and her ten year old son, the only child. They have very few acquaintances in common and most of the earl’s guests look down their collective noses at the “mushrooms.” But her mother is oblivious and continues to drop not so subtle hints as to the size of Mariah’s dowry.
While walking in the garden, Mariah stumbles across Stone and a married woman in a heated embrace. Their discussion after the fact is pointed, frank and very intriguing to both. Over the next few days, they will have several such discussions, and find some common ground, making tentative progress toward friendship. All of this is very confusing for Mariah; Stone is charming, very kind to and patient with her young brother, she enjoys his conversation, and yet she knows full well that he is an admitted rakehell.
For his part, Stone realizes fairly quickly that Mariah is different from his usual sort of woman, that his rakehell days are numbered, but how can he counter the awful first impression he made and does he really want to go to that effort?
I liked Mariah very much. I could sympathize with her feelings of awkwardness and isolation at the house party, though she is no shrinking violet and is quite capable of giving as good as she gets when one of Stone’s paramours goes after her. Mariah wishes to do something more with her life than to be just a wife, and Stone’s encouragement to use her talents helps further their bond. I also liked that Woodward didn’t make Mrs. Thorncroft simply a title-mad mother. She had her own charm and caring for her children that made her not just a caricature.
My only complaints about the book are small ones in the grand scheme of things; Stone and Mariah are apart for a good deal of the final third of the book, though each use the time to discover and admit to themselves their feelings for each other, and the ending dragged on a bit too long for me, as if the story Woodward had to tell was 20-30 pages shorter than she needed, but she ends the novel with a grand romantic gesture from Stone that was almost worth the wait.
Over all, a very good traditional Regency, with interesting, multidimensional characters and plenty of sexual tension.