Since I love to comb the shelves at used bookstores and pick up older romances, I always love it when we have Old School month at TBR Challenge. This time around, I chose a 1992 Harlequin Historical that turned out to be something of a gem. The author got her rights back for the book, so the novel I know as Sweet Suspicions by Julie Tetel is available nowadays under the title Suspicious Hearts by Julie Tetel Andresen. Considering what goes on in this unusual story, I think that latter title may fit better.
The novel is a Georgian historical mystery/romance, and unlike most other Georgians I have read, this one is set in the very early days of King George I’s reign. The story takes place among the polished ranks of the aristocracy, but the leads are both outsiders of a sort and that lends the story a subtle edge I found attractive.
We meet our hero first. Colonel Richard Worth has sold his commission and being both gently born and in possession of a fortune, he intends to spend his days in society. We learn early on that re-entering society will not necessarily be easy for Richard. Even his status as a war hero who fought alongside Marlborough will not entirely smooth over the fact that he initially left England under a cloud as a young man. To help his cause, Richard appeals to his military friend Jonathan Wyndham, now Duke of Desford. He hopes that Jonathan can help him, among other things, find a bride who might help him become established. His strategy is to find a respectable, aristocratic woman in dire financial straits whose need for funds may help her overlook the gossip about his past.
This series of inquiries leads to Richard’s introduction to Caroline Hutton, an orphaned young woman of good family whose father’s gambling habit has now left her destitute upon his death. To Caroline’s surprise her aunt Esther has invited to visit and offered to take her out into society. Caroline isn’t terribly fond of Esther, but she’s a little short on options, so she agrees – and there the reader meets her at the London Assembly.
Of the women Richard meets, the intelligent and direct Caroline is the one who interests him most. Things kick into high gear one night at a gathering when Caroline and Richard both happen to be present when a young man is found dead in an alley. Recently arrived in London, the victim was related to the Duke of Desford so his killing instantly sparks an investigation. This novel predates the days of the Bow Street Runners, but we do encounter the local constables making inquiries and the investigation takes up a good portion of the book.
Not long after the murder, Caroline and Richard become engaged. The romance from there is actually quite a gentle one. Initially, each has pragmatic reasons for the match. Caroline is penniless and miserable in the home of her manipulative aunt. Jonathan thinks that only someone as desperate as Caroline could possibly look past gossip of the “infamous Richard Worth” and provide him the society marriage he needs. Though not romantic at the outset, Caroline and Richard come together as a friendly team and though this story does not run deep with angst, readers will still be rooting for these two to fall in love.
It’s not an easy journey for them. Given the nature of their marriage, each has reason to feel suspicious of the other. And then there’s the fact that each of them were among the first to discover the murder victim. For protagonists uncertain of whether to trust one another emotionally, it’s not a difficult leap to start wondering “what if?” about each other’s connections to the crime as well. All of this adds much-needed tension to the story. Books of this sort tend to be classified as “gentle romance” when they’re good and “bland and boring” when they’re not. This book generally stays on the more positive side of that classification, though I did get a bit lost in the twists and turns of mystery from time to time.
Readers used to historicals that focus very deeply on the main couple and their relationship will find this book quite a surprise. For starters, there’s quite an ensemble cast and the intrigues between the various members of Caroline and Richard’s circle are almost as interesting to read as the romance. The love story itself is more subtle than most historicals published today and even by 1990s standards, this one comes close to “novel with strong romantic elements” territory, given the amount of focus given to the murder mystery and other societal intrigues.
It’s been a while since I read (or reread) any 1990s historicals, so I was happy to find this unusual treat lurking on my shelves. I know I have 1 or 2 more Harlequins by Tetel, and I’m curious to read those as well now.