No Earls Allowed
No Earls Allowed is book two in Shana Galen’s Survivors series, and like the first book, Third Son’s a Charm, features one of the men who had belonged to a specialist ‘suicide troop’ formed during the Napoleonic wars. The group consisted originally of thirty, all of them single men, some of them younger sons, some of them by-blows – but all of them expendable; and under the command of Major Neil Wraxall, the men were given the most dangerous missions, missions from which they were not expected to return – and many did not. By the end of the war, thirty had become a mere dozen, and even though the war has ended, Wraxall continues to carry a mountain of guilt for the eighteen men who did not return as well as for the death of his half-brother Christopher, the oldest legitimate son of their father, the Marquess of Kensington.
Neil’s life as an illegitimate son has perhaps been easier than many others in his situation given that his father acknowledged him from birth; he provided for him, made sure Neil had a good education and upbringing and then purchased his army commission. In spite of that, however, Neil still feels his status – or lack thereof – as a bastard, and has never really felt as though he fit in or belonged anywhere apart from with his company of men in the army. Now the war is over, he spends most of his time at his club with his closest friends – Ewan Mostyn and Rafe Beaumont – or alone, wallowing in guilt and consuming large amounts of strong drink in the attempt to keep the nightmares at bay.
When Neil receives a note from his father asking to see him, he isn’t too surprised. Neil performs the odd service for the marquess now and again, and he takes himself off, wondering what his father needs him to do this time. The last thing he expects is to be asked to retrieve an earl’s daughter from an orphanage for young boys located in one of the less salubrious areas of London; but Neil can’t imagine it’ll be difficult and arrives just in time to discover the earl’s daughter in question being importuned by an unsavoury character.
Lady Juliana (Julia) is the one remaining unmarried daughter of the Earl of St. Maur, and is currently residing at the Sunnybrooke Home for Boys in Spitalfields where she is trying desperately to keep the place running without sufficient funds and staff. When her sister, Harriett, was alive, the home had been one of the charities to which the two of them donated, although it had been Harriett who had been the truly tireless supporter of that particular orphanage and several others; but after Harriett’s death in childbirth, the home has become something of an emotional crutch for Julia, who sees devoting herself to Sunnybrooke as a way to keep Harriett’s memory alive. The earl is naturally concerned and wants Julia to return home to the world of the ton as befits her station in life, but she will hear none of it. The boys need her, and given the way her beloved sister’s husband treated her, Julia has decided she wants nothing to do with men or marriage.
Added to Julia’s many problems – pilfering from the pantry, the resignation of the cook, the leaky roof and a trio of escaped pet rats – is Mr. Slag, the local crime-lord who is pressing her for payment of a large sum of money in exchange for his ‘protection’ – or if not money, he insinuates another way in which he would become her protector. Julia has just got rid of him – for now – when Neil arrives and stops her dead in her tracks. With his dark hair, well-muscled build and startlingly blue eyes, he’s the most gorgeous man Julia has ever seen and, lost in contemplation of all that male beauty, Julia fails to recall she’d been cooking breakfast for the boys when Slag had turned up – a fact that suddenly makes itself known courtesy of the burning smell emanating from the kitchen.
Neil hadn’t planned to spend the day sorting out breakfast, wrangling rats and a group of young boys alike, but he quickly realises that the notion he could simply tell the lady that her father wants her home and then escort her there was rather wide of the mark and that she’s not going to meekly obey the earl’s summons. He decides instead that the best way to get Julia out of there is to make sure the orphanage is safe (none of the door and windows lock properly), clean and dry (the roof leaks and the boys are slobs) and that proper staff are engaged… but it quickly becomes apparent, even when the place is tidier and more secure, that Julia isn’t going to go back to her father’s house. And if she stays at the orphanage, then Neil stays, especially when he discovers that one of Julia’s servants is working for Slag.
No Earls Allowed (a title which seems to have no bearing on the actual story) is an enjoyable and entertaining read, but I found the premise of an earl’s daughter running an orphanage while still being accepted by the ton to require quite a large stretch of my credulity. I did, however like that Ms. Galen gives Julia underlying and unacknowledged (to herself) reasons for her determination to run the place, rather than making her a blithe Lady Bountiful type – as I said earlier, it’s clear she’s using the place as some sort of emotional crutch and, as her former governess points out, that she’s using it to hide from life. She’s determined and gutsy, and I liked her – until, towards the end of the book, she turns into one of my least favourite heroine-types, the one who, when told to stay behind for her own safety (and because the hero wants not to have to worry about her while he’s confronting the bad guys) insists on tagging along and then has to be rescued. And while Neil is a wonderful hero – handsome, kind, honourable and just plain decent – he has his moment of stupidity near the end, which just feels tacked on in order to provide a bit of last minute drama. Which it doesn’t.
Some of the best moments in the book are provided by the interactions between Neil and the boys. I’m not normally fond of children in romance novels, but I’m pleased to say that Ms. Galen writes them all well, and does a great job of showing how they bond with Neil and adopt him as a father figure, and how he so naturally steps into that breach and takes charge of them and the orphanage. The romance between Neil and Juliana is sensual and nicely-developed; they have scorching chemistry and in making Neil a man who knows all too well the stigma of illegitimacy, of being ostracized, talked about and looked down on, she has created a hero who is a little different from the norm, a man fully aware of the consequences of passion and so unwilling to visit them upon an innocent child that he has remained (technically) a virgin – although luckily for Julia, he’s not inexperienced (!).
I enjoyed meeting Ewan and Rafe again; their unquestioning loyalty and the snarky banter between Neil and Rafe are other high points, and overall, I enjoyed the No Earls Allowed in spite of my reservations. I’ll definitely be reading the next in the series when it comes out later this year.