It’s been a couple of years since Julia Justiss has had a new release, and reading The Courtesan reminded me why she’s on my auto-buy list. Justiss writes emotionally intense characters who have real conflicts and obstacles to overcome.
Since the death of her protector, Lord Bellingham, several months ago, “Lady Belle” has been London’s most sought-after courtesan. She has no plans to take another protector, but she is not allowed to be left alone. Men vie for her attention and favor, following her every move, even going so far as to invade her lessons with a fencing master. She takes the lessons in order to feel as if she is in command of her life, as well as to protect herself. In order to retain some control over the situation, after each session she takes on one man who, should he best her, will win a kiss. She has not been defeated. She is quite good at keeping the men at arm’s length but her expertise with the blade, as well as her disdain for their blandishments only fascinates them more. Certainly Jack is riveted.
Captain Jack Carrington, late of Waterloo, is planning to sell his commission and relax in the country before returning to London to squire his sister in her first Season. When his friend drags him to Belle’s fencing session, he is as entranced as all the rest, and when their eyes meet, they both feel an incredible jolt of attraction. He allows himself to be talked into challenging Belle for the kiss prize, and – dare he hope – more?
During the match, the button on Belle’s foil comes off and she inflicts a serious chest wound upon Jack. With his family not in town and living in rented rooms, she feels obliged to take him into her home to see he is cared for.
Jack has done his duty for his country, but longs to return to his estate where he is happiest. He knows it’s time to marry and plans to look about when his sister has her Season, but he is fascinated with Belle and wishes to deepen their acquaintance, even though he knows he cannot afford her – either monetarily, or socially. The more he gets to know Belle however, the more her reputation doesn’t mesh with reality. And while he still wants to have sex with her, he begins to want even more to be her friend, to be someone whom the closely guarded Belle can trust. Jack is a Nice Guy who is finding himself happy just to be with Belle. He knows he’s far gone and that it won’t take much to push him over the edge, but he’s not fighting it too much.
Belle is a great tormented heroine. It is obvious that she was raised a lady and that something went dreadfully wrong when she was a young girl. Lord Bellingham has been her only protector and, though her story unfolds slowly, we do know that it was a nightmarish existence and that he had a very powerful hold over her to keep her from leaving him. Now that she is free, she wants nothing but to be left alone and in control of her own destiny. The pull she feels toward Jack frightens her, and the patience he shows in allowing her to discover that he isn’t like other men, that he wants more than just her body, and even that her body is capable of experiencing pleasure, are all revelations to her, though she remains very wary.
Even when they acknowledge to themselves that they are in love, there are many, many obstacles in the way to their HEA. There is an increasingly persistent and dangerous man obsessed with the idea of being Belle’s next protector, as well as threats from a bawdy house madam and her bully boy over a young girl Belle rescued. But the biggest obstacle is Belle’s notorious reputation and how a relationship with her would affect his family and ruin sister’s success in the upcoming Season. I truly had a difficult time seeing how Justiss would manage to have it all work out. And though the resolution to their problems did seem a bit too pat and even implausible, after all Belle and Jack had been through, I was willing to go along with it.
In The Courtesan, Julia Justiss has written about two people I came to care for very much as they struggle to find peace and love under adverse circumstances. If you like Tormented Heroines and Nice Guys Heroes, this is a book for you.