This fifth instalment in Emily Larkin’s Baleful Godmother series is a charming and beautifully romantic road-trip story that pairs up a most unlikely couple. As she has demonstrated in all the books in this series, Ms. Larkin is a fabulous storyteller with the ability to create memorable, likeable characters and inject new life into well-used tropes by sprinkling in a bit of magic and whimsy while firmly grounding her story in the familiar – to historical romance fans at least – world of early nineteenth century England. Ruining Miss Wrotham is laced with gentle humour, sensuality and tenderness as we watch our heroine discover surprising truths about herself, her wants and her desires, while struggling with her growing feelings for a man she should have no feelings for at all.
Miss Eleanor Wrotham is counting the days until her twenty-third birthday, because then she will be able to choose a magical gift from Baletongue, the malevolent and pitiless faerie godmother who is bound to deliver a supernatural power to the females of her family line as the result of an ages-old curse. Eleanor knows what she will chose; the ability to locate missing people, and with only a few days to go, is impatient for the faerie's visit so she can use her gift to find her younger sister, Sophia, who eloped with her lover some months earlier and has now gone missing. But when Eleanor receives a months-old note telling her that Sophia is in London – in Seven Dials - she wants to go to her immediately, regardless of the fact that it’s one of the most dangerous areas in the city. She asks her former fiancé – who jilted her once he learned of her sister’s disgrace – for help, but he refuses and as she is storming out of his house, bumps into the last man on earth she would have considered helpful or trustworthy, the deliciously handsome but highly disreputable Mordecai Black, bastard son of the late Earl of Dereham.
It’s apparent from the first page that there is a lot more to Black than meets the eye – and given he’s a hulking six-foot-five, there’s a lot of him to meet! – and that he’s in love with Eleanor and has been for some time. He tries to dissuade her from going to look for her sister by offering to find her himself, but Eleanor will have none of it, and he has no alternative but to allow her to go with him. Ms. Larkin paints a vivid picture of the dank, rubbish-strewn streets of the stews of London, and creates a strong atmosphere of menace as the couple ventures into a part of the city into which only those with no alternative – or no idea of self-preservation – would ever go. They find the place where Sophia was when she sent the note, but learn that she left with a friend some time ago, most likely to travel to Exeter and the home of someone who helps fallen women.
For a young, unmarried lady to travel alone is scandalous and dangerous, but Eleanor doesn’t care and wants to set out for Exeter immediately. Her meagre funds mean she must travel by stagecoach, but Black will not hear of it and insists upon escorting her himself. He also insists on procuring her a disguise in order to protect her reputation, even though Eleanor maintains that the fact of her sister’s elopement has already ruined her good name and she has no reputation left to protect.
Thus begins the journey during which Eleanor starts to uncover the truth about Mordecai Black and learns that he is not nearly as black (pun unintentional!) as he has been painted. He’s an honourable perceptive and intelligent man who lives life on his own terms and doesn’t give a fig for what people think of him. He’s also gorgeous and charismatic – and Eleanor is unnerved by the visceral pull of attraction she feels towards him. She is stunned to learn that he once asked her father for her hand in marriage – although not that he had been refused - and is furious that her father never told her of the proposal. Eleanor can’t imagine what prompted Black to ask – they are not well acquainted, so surely he can’t be in love with her? – yet she can’t help being flattered that such an attractive man would want her. Even so, she steels herself against the temptation he represents, and tells herself she doesn’t want him; having been manipulated and controlled by her tyrannical father her entire life, the last thing Eleanor wants now he is dead is to find herself subject to another man’s domination - and Black is nothing if not high-handed and dictatorial. But he’s also generous and kind, and the longer they spend together, the harder it becomes for Eleanor not fall in love with him, in spite of his tendency to try to order her around.
Ruining Miss Wrotham is a carefully crafted, multi-layered novel in which the sub-plots are skilfully woven into the main storyline to create a cohesive, well-paced whole that grabbed my attention from the first page and didn’t let me go until the end. The romance is a delectable slow-burn, with Black determined to allow Eleanor time to realise that they are kindred spirits while the undeniable sparks of sexual awareness sizzle in the air between them. Their over-dinner conversations are delightful, their enforced proximity engendering trust and shared confidences, and his nightly marriage proposals are incredibly sweet – there were times I wanted to give Eleanor a good shake and tell her just to accept him already! But her reasons for refusing are understandable, especially as at this period in time, women were little more than possessions and her experiences with her father would naturally make her wary.
Historical romances are full of heroines who are repeatedly told not to put themselves in danger and then go ahead and do just that because they don’t want to be told what to do. Fortunately, Emily Larkin doesn’t fall into that trap; Eleanor doesn’t like it when Black is high-handed, but she understands that his intention is to protect her, and rather than having them constantly at odds, the author has them learning to make compromises in order to keep each other safe. It’s not easy for either of them to adapt in this way and they make mistakes, but their willingness to try speaks volumes about the depth of their feelings for each other.
While all this is going on, Eleanor finally gets her visit from Baletongue - but things don’t go as planned, which leads to something of a rift between her and Black. Fortunately for them both, the Earl of Cosgrove (Unmasking Miss Appleby) and Icarus and Letty Reid (Trusting Miss Trentham) are on hand to provide assistance, but while I liked seeing them again, their sudden and fortuitous appearance smacks a bit of the deus ex machina, and strikes a bit of bum note.
That, however, is the only major criticism I can level at the story, which is otherwise captivating and thoroughly enjoyable. The way that Eleanor sometimes sees Black’s concern for her safety as attempts to control her can be a little irritating, but as I’ve said above, it works within the context of her character, and I liked her in spite of it. Mordecai Black, however, is sure to win you over immediately; a swoon-worthy rogue with a heart of gold, his absolute devotion to Eleanor will melt even the hardest heart.
Ruining Miss Wrotham is part of a series that can be read without reference to the other books, although an understanding of the basic premise – that the heroines have a faerie godmother who is nothing like the one in Cinderella! – is probably a good idea if you’re not going to start at the beginning. That said, the first book, Unmasking Miss Appleby was one of my favourite books of 2016 (and a DIK), so it’s well worth checking out. Whatever you decide, Emily Larkin is a gifted author of historical romance and one fans of the genre shouldn’t miss.
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