Marrying Winterborne, the second book in Lisa Kleypas’s dearly anticipated Ravenels series, begins with Lady Helen Ravenel calling on Rhys Winterborne, a man to whom she was briefly engaged. As almost anyone who read the first book, A Cold Hearted Rake, will tell you, Rhys and Helen utterly upstaged that story’s lovers and left historical romance readers longing for more.
And more, wonderfully more, readers do indeed get. Marrying Winterborne is as engrossing a story as any of Ms. Kleypas’s earlier works–my favorite is It Happened One Autumn–and, in it, her writing is as good as it’s ever been.
The plot is, on the surface, a familiar one. Helen and Rhys, she an aristocrat and he a self-made magnate, are compromised–deliciously–and agree, again, to wed. Despite a sharing a desperate attraction for one another, their relationship is challenged by internal and external obstacles. Sounds conventional, right? It’s not.
For starters, Helen and Rhys decide to have Rhys compromise Helen so that their marriage will be a fait accompli and they both thoroughly enjoy Helen’s ruination. Rhys has burned for Helen since she nursed him back from a train accident in A Cold Hearted Rake. In that book, it seemed his passion was too overwhelming for Helen. This, however, isn’t the case. Helen is every bit as drawn to Rhys. She knows little of men but when Rhys kisses her, she knows that, that, is what she wants.
She had never imagined that a man would kiss her as if he were trying to breathe her in, as if kisses were words meant for poems, or honey to be gathered with his tongue.
Helen realizes being Rhys’s wife will challenge her in ways she can’t fathom–he runs an department store empire and his background is wildly different than hers–but that unknown future is exciting and full of possibilities. In that, it’s appealingly different from the life she thought she’d have, one in which she’d
meet an eligible man her family would approve of. A member of the landed gentry, bland and reserved, with a very tall forehead. He would expect her to make his wishes her own.
Rhys isn’t that man. He’s from a working class Welsh family, a self-made man and a fearsome competitor, someone who breaks more rules than he follows. He values his fortune with the fervor of one raised terribly poor and, other than Helen, he’s never needed anyone. But he needs Helen. As he tells her in one of the book’s many romantic passages, when he is with her, he is, for the first time, complete.
Helen and Rhys are smashing together–there isn’t a scene they share that doesn’t serve their love story. Each word and touch they exchange is making love, creating an abiding and encompassing relationship. Their love scenes are aren’t just erotic, they’re intimate. The two cherish everything–body, heart,and mind–about each other. Their Happily Ever After seems inevitable not because of the demands of the genre but because they belong with one another.
Ms. Kleypas creates a vivid context for her lovers. Rhys’s department store, Winterborne’s, is intricately displayed. Ms. Kleypas shows us not just the comforts of the age–all of which Rhys sells–but its squalid, impoverished scourges–the tenements, the orphanages, the sewage strewn streets. She renders Rhys a businessman with a social reformer’s standards and Helen an aristocrat with the same. Rhys is a pragmatic man for whom the success of his business is enhanced by his progressive commercial choices. He hires women when they are the best people for the job. He cares about the health and well-being of his workers, in large part, because doing so makes them more productive. He’s a man of his times, not ours, who stands up to modern scrutiny.
Rhys’s world is that of Winterborne’s; Helen’s is her family. The Ravenels are a intriguing bunch, especially her twin younger sisters, Cassandra and Pandora–the latter of whom will be matched with Gabriel, Sebastian’s and Evie’s (from A Devil in Winter) son in the next book, A Devil in Spring.
This book abounds with strong female characters. I especially enjoyed Dr. Garrett Gibson, a supremely confident physician Rhys employs, and Lady Berwick, the Ravenels’ chaperone, whose insistence on deportment belies her determination for the young women she mentors to thrive in their male run world.
After I finished A Cold Hearted Rake, I went back and reread some of Ms. Kleypas’s earlier Avon historicals. After I finished Marrying Winterborne, I went back to page one and began reading the book again. It’s damn near perfect. Its flaws seem small compared to all that is great within it. There are a few times where Rhys seemed unbelievably rigid in his assessment of others. The major obstacle to Helen and Rhys’s happiness is one that, to a modern eye, seems somewhat overblown. Honestly, none of this bothered me.
Marrying Winterborne has everything I could want in a romance: Appealing leads, great secondary characters I can’t wait to see more of, a convincing love story, wonderfully torrid scenes, elegant prose, and a wry sense of mirth. It gets an A from me.