I discovered Carolyn Jewel’s first book, Lord Ruin, about a year too late to vote for it as my favorite 2002 Guilty Pleasure. While I agreed with our reviewer that the book had flaws, it was a very memorable debut, and made me anxious to read more by this author. Her newest book, The Spare is nothing like Lord Ruin, but it’s better plotted and overall, it’s an engrossing read.
Captain Sebastian Alexander returns home to Pennhyll Castle wounded from his time in the navy. He is also the new heir to the Earldom of Tiern-Cope as his brother Andrew and his wife, Guenevere, were recently murdered. The murderer remains at large, but Sebastian has his suspicions. He thinks that Miss Olivia Willow may have been involved. At the very least, she knows something.
Olivia may know something, but it’s locked up in her inaccessible memory. The same night her friends Andrew and Guenevere were murdered she was also shot and suffered a bad head injury. She remembers nothing of those critical several days. Olivia is invited to Pennhyll to be the “spare.” Another gently born female is needed to round out the number for a house party, and so she is included, despite her presently reduced circumstances. When she and Sebastian meet for the first time, it’s clear that he doesn’t like her. But she refuses to be cowed by him. He may be a war hero, a naval captain, and the object of her lengthy crush, but that doesn’t mean she has to simper and cower before him. Complicating matters is her fellow guest’s desire to have a séance to communicate with the spirit of the long dead Black Earl. It’s long been believed that the Black Earl appears around St. Agnes’ Eve, the anniversary of his death, to meddle in the affairs of the living. Neither Sebastian nor Olivia believes in the legend, but the legend appears to believe in them.
I am a self-proclaimed non-fan of the suspense plot in Regency historicals, but here it worked very well. Olivia’s background is revealed slowly, as Sebastian delves deeper and deeper into what happened the night of the murder and why Olivia happened to be there. What he finds is more shocking and more complicated than he ever imagined. Olivia herself is relatively untouched by what happened since she cannot remember, but certain things and certain people frighten her more than she can explain. At first Sebastian attempts to exploit those fears, but as he grows to know her more he becomes obsessed with her – whatever she was and whatever she is.
It was so enjoyable to see that obsession grow and morph Sebastian. When the story begins he is an entirely self-sufficient military man focused on his career and indifferent to women. He needs a wife, yes, but for dynastic purposes only. When Olivia crosses his path, he sees her bright red hair and forthright ways and assumes she is both easy and prey. That she is neither is a realization that creeps up on him. They create a most interesting relationship which culminates in a memorable (if somewhat tardy) love scene.
Jewel uses the Black Earl’s ghostly legend (and actual presence) to great effect. It was interesting to watch Sebastian and Olivia fight against their disbelief and try to understand what exactly was happening to them. The setting of Pennhyll Castle was an atmospheric and appropriate place for all the ghostly doings. With its maze of corridors, additions, dungeons, and towers, it was eerie enough all by itself without the Black Earl’s help. It would have been even more interesting had the characters uncovered what exactly was fact and what was fiction in the legend itself, but the author maintained that mystery.
I really appreciate that Leisure publishes romances that are different from the tried and true Regency historical glutting the market today. The Spare is the story of a Regency house party, but with enough twists to make it unlike any other romance I’ve read. The suspense subplot was tightly drawn and integral to the story itself. Readers who are expecting from this author another book just like Lord Ruin may be disappointed, but readers looking for a good story will not be. I can’t wait to see what kind of story Jewel writes next.