Kate Bateman – or K.C. Bateman as she was known then – made her début as an author of historical romance in 2016 and To Steal a Heart impressed me to such a degree that I counted her as one of the “finds” of the year. To date, she’s published four historical romances and I’ve rated them all fairly highly, so I was really pleased to learn she was writing a new series – Bow Street Bachelors – and snapped up a review copy of the first book as soon as I could get my hands on one. This Earl of Mine is very well-written, Ms. Bateman keeps the sexual tension bubbling nicely and I’m always up for a marriage-of-convenience plotline, but ultimately, this book lacks the spark and energy of her earlier ones. The leads are likeable but unmemorable, the same is true of the plot – and if I never again read a historical heroine in her early twenties who learned the family business at her father’s knee and who has inherited it from him but never seems to do much by way of actually running it, it’ll be too soon.
The set-up, though, is cute, if rather implausible. Twenty-four-year-old Georgina Caversteed, who now runs the shipping empire built by her late father, is desperate to avoid being trapped into marriage by her odious cousin Josiah, and decides upon an equally desperate course of action. He can’t trap her if she’s already married; but having a husband will automatically mean losing control of the business, so she instead decides to find herself a convict who is due for execution and marry him. After all, as a widow she’ll have more freedom than she would as a wife. Her faithful servant, Pieter, has found the perfect candidate in Newgate – except that the man dies before the ceremony can be performed, and with no other felons sentenced to death available (!), Georgie is forced to make the best of a bad lot and instead ends up marrying a sailor sentenced to transportation. She won’t be a widow, but her husband will be on the other side of the world, which is the next best thing.
Benedict Wylde, brother of the Earl of Morcott, served with Wellington’s army and following Napoléon’s defeat at Waterloo, is now working for the government trying to root out a group of smugglers who are plotting to rescue the deposed emperor from his prison on St. Helena. He infiltrated the gang and was arrested and imprisoned with them in hopes of discovering more about their plans, but has so far found out little. He thinks the young woman who arrives at the prison offering him five hundred pounds to marry her must have taken leave of her senses, but has no way of evading the marriage without blowing his cover or getting a serious beating from the well-bribed gaoler. Ben doesn’t want to get married, but goes along with it, sure he’ll be able to find a way out of it later on.
Thus begins a marriage of convenience which isn’t all that … well… convenient for either party. Georgie can’t suddenly announce her marriage to a man with a reputation as something of a scapegrace without damaging her sister’s chances or upsetting her mother and causing a scandal, while seeing his parents’ miserable relationship has put Benedict off the institution for life. (*sigh*) Yet there’s no denying the pull of attraction he feels towards Georgie; her sharp wit and competency intrigue him, and as the days and weeks pass, he finds it more and more difficult to stop thinking about her or wanting her. Georgie is equally drawn to her gorgeous husband and enjoying the flirtatious, seductive comments that make her want to do more with him than just flirt. After all, they’re married and there’s no way of ending the marriage without a massive scandal, so why not enjoy the benefits while she can?
One of the things I enjoy about Ms. Bateman’s writing is her ability to create cracking sexual tension between her principals. That’s certainly on display here, and I appreciated that, unlike so many authors of historicals, she is aware that annulments were very difficult to procure and weren’t simply available to anyone who got married and then didn’t consummate the union. I liked that Ben and Georgie have to face up to the fact that their marriage will be pretty much impossible to get out of and that they’ll have to make the best of it in whichever way they decide to do so, probably by agreeing to live separate lives for the duration.
But I missed the sharp wit of the spirited banter the characters engage in in her previous books. Both Ben and Georgie are clearly capable of giving as much as they get, but their exchanges felt muted and as though the sharp edges had been smoothed away. And while, as I said earlier, they’re likeable, they’re also rather bland; Ben is a stereotypical ‘rogue’ who isn’t all that roguish (we’re told how much of a bad boy he is, but he does nothing on the page to support that) and who must be a fairly terrible agent/investigator if the fact that he tells Georgie pretty much everything about his mission during their first few conversations is anything to go by! And Georgie is the typical not-as-pretty-as-my-sister type of heroine who has resigned herself to probably remaining unmarried because the only men who are interested are interested in her money and not her. Which – to be fair – is what her experience so far suggests. But nothing about either of them stands out from the crowd. And then we have the heroine who runs a business empire while never actually doing anything business-like on page, which is becoming as ubiquitous as the ducal hero in historical romance. I’m not disputing the fact that there were women pushing boundaries at this period, my issue is more to do with the fact that there aren’t all that many twenty-four-year-old CEOs (of either sex) around today, let alone two hundred years ago, AND that for all we’re told about Georgie’s amazing business acumen, we don’t actually see it. She knows about ships, yes, but that’s not the same as negotiating, logistics, accounting and all the things she’d surely have to do as head of the company.
One final point. I know authors often have little input when it comes to book titles, and also that publishers seem to think that historical romances need the word “duke” or “earl” in the title in order to sell, but Benedict isn’t an earl until the LAST PAGE when he and his two besties (presumably the other heroes in the series) are given earldoms by the Prince Regent. Apart from it seeming a bit odd that the younger brother of an earl would be given an earldom of his own, it felt as though it was tacked on simply so the book could have the world “Earl” in the title. (Plus – Georgie addresses the Prince Regent as Your Majesty, which is incorrect – it should be Your Royal Highness. I’m surprised that Ms. Bateman would make that mistake; presumably it will be corrected in the published version of the book.)
It’s never pleasant when an author whose work you’ve enjoyed proves to be a bit of a disappointment, and it’s never easy to write reviews of those books, but I’m afraid I can’t give This Earl of Mine a recommendation. If you’ve read Ms. Bateman’s other books, then this doesn’t compare all that well; if you haven’t, you might enjoy it more than I did.