Seven Minutes in Heaven
Seven Minutes in Heaven is the third in Eloisa James’ Desperate Duchess by the Numbers series which is a kind of Desperate Duchesses TNG – the heroes and heroines featured in these books appeared as children in some of the earlier stories and are now grown up and getting their own. This means that there are some references to characters from and events that took place in both series; I confess that while I’ve read the previous two books in the By the Numbers series (Three Weeks with Lady X and Four Nights with a Duke), I haven’t read all of the Desperate Duchesses books which meant that I was sometimes a bit adrift as to who was related to whom. But for the most part, Seven Minutes works perfectly well as a standalone.
Mrs. Eugenia Snowe has been a widow for some seven years, having lost her young husband in a boating accident. The daughter of a marquess, she now owns and operates a very exclusive agency that supplies governesses to the best families, and even though her social standing has taken a just the tiniest bit of a dip because she engages in ‘trade’, she is nonetheless regarded as a woman of the highest standing and steadiest character throughout society. (I don’t think we’re told why she styles herself ‘Mrs.’ when she is entitled to be called ‘Lady’. Mind you, if she had used her title, there would be no book.)
Eugenia has become very much a ‘dull boy’ over the last few years, rarely taking the time to visit friends and family or attend any of the various society events to which she is regularly invited. She is still not fully over Andrew’s death and even though, as a woman of beauty, brains and fortune, she could have her pick of men, she isn’t ready to remarry. Although, as her best friend and assistant, Susan, points out, as a widow, she doesn’t have to marry a man in order to enjoy one ;) Eugenia liked the physical side of marriage, but has never thought about the possibility of engaging in a discreet affaire… and she probably wouldn’t have done, had not the handsome, overbearing and persistent Mr. Edward Reeve, bastard son of the Earl of Gryffin, barged into her office demanding a replacement governess for his eight and nine year-old half-siblings.
Reeve –or Ward, as he is known to his friends – is in a bind. His own irregular birth has never really bothered or hindered him, but when his half-brother and half-sister are literally dumped on his doorstep following the death of their mother, Ward takes them in and determines to do his best to care for them. But it’s not easy. For one thing, Lizzie and Otis were brought up in a travelling acting troupe and their behaviour is unconventional to say the least; and for another, their mother was the eccentric (widely regarded as mad) Lady Lisette, who ran off with a man half her age. Her mother, the Duchess of Gilner, is now set on wresting the guardianship of her grandchildren from Ward, in the face of the wishes of both their parents.
Ward knows the duchess to be a despotic, uncaring woman and is equally determined that the children remain with him – but he needs to show that he can care for them. Otis needs to be prepared to go to Eton, and Lizzie needs to be educated and taught all the things the daughter of a viscount needs to know. The children have obviously not had an easy time of it, and I liked the way in which Ms. James makes the reader aware of that without making anything overly sensational or maudlin. It’s very clear that these are children desperately in need of love, security and normalcy, and that they are going to need careful nurturing for a while until they get used to the fact that they have a permanent place in the world and in their brother’s life.
The replacement governess doesn’t work out either, and Ward is becoming desperate. So he travels to London, determined to ask Eugenia to return to Oxfordshire with him – temporarily – so that she can see the children for herself and spend some time with them in order to better appreciate the task facing him.
According to the book synopsis, Ward ‘kidnaps’ Eugenia, but fortunately, she is quite happy to go with him, making it clear that she is open to the idea of having an affair with him. Their conversation at this point is laden with amusing and steamy double-entendres and sexually-charged banter; but given these two people barely know each other and have really only corresponded up until now, it feels inappropriate – it’s too much too soon.
Much like Mary Poppins, Eugenia is able to see what Lizzie and Otis really need and begins to build a relationship with them – and not like Mary Poppins, does it while she and Ward are engaged in a relationship of another kind. He finds himself thinking about permanence, but dismisses the idea quickly. Because of his illegitimacy and his mother’s terrible reputation, Ward needs to marry well if Otis and Lizzie are going to be able to hold up their heads in society. He needs a wife above reproach, a Lady with a capital ‘L’, one ‘to the manor born’ to ensure that they are received everywhere; and a former governess – Ward seems to be the only person in England who is ignorant of Eugenia’s pedigree – won’t cut the mustard. So he is prepared to sacrifice his own happiness for the sake of his brother and sister and let Eugenia go at the end of her two week’s stay.
I liked Ward’s protectiveness of them, and Otis and Lizzie themselves are engaging – if a little too precocious to be believable. But the use of this particular device to create the conflict in the romance is so flimsy as to be see-through. We’re to believe that Ward really can’t recognise that Eugenia IS a lady, in spite of the odd spurt of behaviour HE (the model of propriety himself – not!) considers unladylike? We’re to believe that nobody, but NOBODY – the person who suggested he employ a Snowe’s governess for example – remarked upon her social standing, even in passing? Her assistant, Susan, who is the one who tells Ward where to find Eugenia on the day he ‘kidnaps’ her, never mentioned it? There’s living outside of society and there’s living under a rock.
Ms. James writes with her customary elegance and assurance, and there is no question that she is a dab hand with the risqué banter and sexy love scenes. But overall, the book lacks… heart, for want of a better word. Ward is a stereotypically handsome, virile, protective hero with a soft side he doesn’t often show and Eugenia is, well, she’s Practically Perfect in Every Way. It seems there is nothing she cannot do, whether it’s in the bedroom or the kitchen. She is a woman with no flaws and I just couldn’t warm to her.
Seven Minutes in Heaven was an easy read, but ultimately one from which I felt rather disconnected . Neither of the protagonists really came to life or made me want to know them better; and when I finished I found myself equating it with a perfectly polished piece of veneer – a beautiful surface but with nothing substantial underneath.