The Earl's Irresistible Challenge
Lara Temple, one of the strongest on the current roster of Harlequin/Mills & Boon Historical authors, begins her new Sinful Sinclairs series with The Earl’s Irresistible Challenge, the first of three stories about siblings whose irresponsible, ne’er-do-well forebears have tarnished the family name and put a blemish on the reputation of the younger generation. It’s a terrific read that hooked me in right from the start as our sarcastic, world-weary hero comes up against a different kind of heroine who won’t let him – or his conscience –off the hook.
The eldest of the siblings is Lucas, Lord Sinclair (Chase and Samantha are his younger brother and sister), and he is rather wondering at his lack of sense for turning up to a clandestine meeting at a dingy church on a rainy winter’s afternoon simply because he’d received a letter suggesting that the sender has information relating to the death of Lucas’ father. Lucas wonders even more when the young woman he meets, Miss Olivia Silverdale, explains that she has travelled to London from her home in Yorkshire in order to uncover the truth about the recent death of her godfather, Henry Payton, and during the course of her enquiries, came across a note in Payton’s hand that said “Howard Sinclair was terribly wronged and something must be done.”
Lucas listens to Miss Silverdale’s recitation with growing incredulity and shock as she explains how she has recruited the help of a Madam by masquerading as a spiritualist, and becomes more and more convinced he’s dealing with a madwoman or a very creative liar. He gives little credence to either the note or Miss Silverdale’s suggestion that they join forces to obtain answers to the truth about her godfather’s death and the question posed by his words concerning Lucas’ father – but ends their unorthodox encounter by telling her that he will think about what she has told him.
Two days later, Lucas has come to decision and tells Olivia that he won’t allow her to make enquiries which could embroil his family name in more scandal than is already attached to it, making it clear that he will put a stop to her investigation if she will not desist. Yet he finds it impossible to completely dismiss the bright, intriguing and infuriating young woman whose quick mind and ready wit attract and annoy him in equal measure. Rather against his better judgement, he decides that “If anyone is to continue tarnishing our name, I prefer [the] remaining Sinclairs do it ourselves” and finds himself agreeing to ‘allow’ her investigation to continue provided she agrees not to do anything further without informing him in advance of her plans.
Olivia Silverdale isn’t the slightest bit intimidated by Lord Sinclair’s veiled threats, although his sardonic, disparaging attitude toward her attempts to help him and his family exasperate her no end. She is surprised at his lack of interest in unravelling the mystery suggested by Payton’s note but determined to pursue her own enquiries with or without his help. Henry Payton was more of a father to her and her siblings than their own father, who spent most of his life abroad pursuing his interest in the natural sciences, and the story she’s been told – that Henry died in the bed of a courtesan – doesn’t add up.
Lucas is intrigued and exasperated by Olivia from the very start, and it doesn’t take long for him to become well-and-truly smitten. She’s like no woman he’s ever met – which is a well-worn romance-novel cliché most of the time, but not here, because Olivia is a refreshingly different heroine. She’s independent and certainly pushes her boundaries, but she doesn’t do it in that obtrusive ‘look at me!’ way that so often characterises those curl-tossing TSTL heroines I can’t stand. She’s unconventional and Lucas is right when he calls her relentless, but she’s quietly so; she doesn’t make a fuss, she just makes it clear she’ll do what she believes she must with or without Lucas’ help or sanction, but not in a brash or snide way. He knows full-well his strings are being pulled, but there’s no question he does what he does because he wants to. The more time he spends with Olivia, the harder it is for him to step back, and his protests become token as he falls more and more deeply in love with her. The main conflict in the novel arises from the fact that Olivia doesn’t actually realise the extent of her tunnel-vision or how her determination to do what she perceives as The Right Thing is actually manipulative. Lucas sees it, and even goes along with it, telling himself it’s because he wants to stop her from further besmirching the Sinclair name, whereas we know it’s because he’s falling hard for her and because he wants to protect her from gossip and the disappointment he fears is in store.
Lucas’ self-deprecating humour and self-awareness are very attractive, and I always enjoy watching the confident, worldly hero losing his head over his heroine, especially when, as is the case here, he’s the first to own to the truth and depth of his feelings. Olivia’s realisation that she’s fallen in love is quite matter-of-fact, whereas Lucas struggles to reconcile his instinct to do the honourable thing and keep Olivia at a distance so as not to taint her reputation by association while being so in love with her that he just can’t stay away. Olivia, on the other hand, is more inscrutable. She has had years of practice at hiding her feelings, which causes Lucas to doubt she feels anything more for him than physical attraction .
The Earl’s Irresistible Challenge is a beautifully developed, wholly absorbing romance featuring two strongly drawn protagonists who are clearly made for each other. Lara Temple once again demonstrates her gift for humorous, insightful dialogue – Olivia can more than hold her own against Lucas’ sardonic wit, while he knows exactly which buttons to push in order to get a reaction – and I lapped up each of their witty, astute conversations and observations. It’s a very strong start to a new series, and I’m looking forward to spending more time with the Sinful Sinclairs.