There are few tropes I actively dislike, but I’m a sucker for a good marriage of convenience story. I love the idea of two people who don’t or who hardly know each other being put into a situation of enforced proximity and intimacy and watching them as they come to know and understand each other and to fall in love. It’s a trope that works especially well in historicals, and my enduring love for it is no doubt partly attributable to the fact that the first historical romance I remember reading is Julia Quinn’s The Viscount Who Loved Me which makes excellent use of the compromised-into-marriage plotline.
I’ve read a lot of MoC stories since then, and had to wonder if I had any left on my TBR pile! I went scurrying to AAR’s Special Title Listings for inspiration and came up with Meredith Duran’s A Lady’s Lesson in Scandal.
Nell Whitby works in an East End cigar factory and lives with her invalid mother in a tiny hovel in Bethnal Green. It’s a tough life and a hand-to-mouth existence; and making things worse, her abusive step-brother is drinking away the money that could pay for her mother’s medicine and keeps suggesting that Nell starts making money on her back to pay for it. With her dying breaths, her mother tells Nell that she must get in touch with her father – her real father – the Earl of Rushden, and raves about having stolen her in order to save part of him and to save Nell.
Homeless and grieving for her loss, Nell decides she’ll do more than contact the Earl of Rushden, whom she believes must have got her mother pregnant and then thrown her out. She breaks into his bedroom late one night intent on murder – only to discover that the earl died some months earlier. The new earl, Simon St. Maur, is a very distant relation of the previous one; he’s also a lot younger, handsome as hell and twice as hot. But while he has inherited the Rushden estates and title, Simon is pockets to let, the old earl having disliked him so intensely that he left his two million pound fortune to his twin daughters and his estates to Simon without leaving him the means to run them.
Most believed Rushden to be mad, bequeathing half his fortune to a girl long thought dead. Over the years, there have been a number of imposters claiming to be Lady Cornelia Aubyn, but after years of searching, the daughter who had been kidnapped as a young child was never found. Yet now, incredibly, here she is, a golden opportunity if ever Simon saw one. He recognises Nell immediately and realises they can help each other; by marrying her, he will gain access to half the late earl’s fortune, and at the same time, he can restore her to her proper place in society. The fact that she’s an uncouth guttersnipe doesn’t really deter him; she’s got spirit and intelligence, and will easily be able to learn how to behave properly in society. Besides, the marriage can be annulled later; they’ll reach a financial settlement and go their separate ways, both of them much better off than they started out.
Not surprisingly, Nell thinks Simon is talking out of his arse when he tells her who she really is. Having been brought up in the slums and with no expectations of ever having anything better, she agrees to go along with Simon’s scheme simply in order to placate him even as she is pricing up the silver and stashing away small items she thinks to sell when she runs off. But there are small things niggling at the back of her mind; the familiarity of a picture, for instance, and the fact that she really does look very much like Lady Katharine, her supposed twin – that sew enough seeds of doubt in Nell’s mind as to make her start to believe that perhaps she really is the missing heiress. Then there’s her growing attraction to Simon, who, she quickly realises, is very far from being the sort of brainless, selfish product of his class she assumes all aristocrats to be.
This is very much a character-driven story, and Ms. Duran has created a couple of very attractive, multi-layered protagonists in Nell and Simon. At first glance, Simon seems to be a bit stereotypical – handsome and titled, but broke and needing to marry money. And it’s true – he is and he does – but he’s much more than that, which makes him all the more appealing. Like Nell, he has been hardened by his upbringing albeit in a different way, his harsh, cynical outlook on life concealing deeply buried vulnerabilities. He is a gifted musician and pianist, but because it wasn’t the done thing for a gentleman to excel in artistic pursuits, his family belittled his talent and wanted him to suppress it. Now, however, he is one of the foremost patrons of the arts in England, and the man all of society looks to in matters of artistic taste – “To disagree with the Earl of Rushden’s artistic opinions was to risk being thought a bumpkin.” Yet he is as trapped by his circumstances as Nell is by hers.
Nell is understandably prickly and quick to mistrust. Her life has been a difficult one and I completely understood her reluctance to believe Simon straight away, even though it would mean escape from her old life into a life of continued luxury. She keeps waiting for the other shoe to drop, for things to go wrong and makes her plans accordingly. It’s not until some way into the book that she finally accepts that she really is Lady Cornelia and agrees to undergo the training she will need to make her fit for society. Even then, however, she fights it, denouncing all the various conventions and social mores as hypocrisy – “The rules here were rotten.” The quick-fire verbal exchanges between Nell and Simon are superbly constructed, showing their matched wit and their equality of mind while also highlighting the very great social gulf between them.
Until coming here, until learning what it meant to be privileged, she’d not understood how far down St. Maur’s kind had to look in order to see hers. But here, in his own words, was the philosophy that made his lot comfortable with never bothering to look down at all.
“Money’s no virtue. It shouldn’t be an end in itself.” She gave a dry little laugh. “And neither should pleasure. If you knew any gin addicts, you’d realise that.”
Watching these two wary, naturally suspicious people move around each other in ever decreasing circles is an absolute delight. The romance is extremely well-developed as the initial spark of attraction between the couple gradually strengthens and deepens into love, and the sexual chemistry between them is utterly delicious and leaps off the page. Both characters are changed by their relationship, Simon especially, as he comes to see and understand the depth of the privation faced by so many people day after day; and Nell learns to stop expecting the worst all the time and to see herself as a woman whose background doesn’t mean she is unworthy of happiness and love. Ms Duran doesn’t sugar-coat the life Nell has lived, the squalor and the degradation and the way it has shaped her, or ignore the fact that, in spite of her noble birth, Nell is never really going to be fully accepted in society and will be forever “between classes”: “Loving him would not be easy. It would mean never again completely belonging anywhere – save with him. But she would belong with him. He would be her home, she thought.”
But what gives the reader confidence for their future is that both of them are well aware of the difficulties they are likely to face and are prepared to face them together.
I thoroughly enjoyed the book, and I’m sure it’s one I’ll revisit, but it isn’t without its problems. Well into the second half, Nell has a massive over-reaction to something she overhears and then refuses to believe the truth about it; and there’s a nefarious plot by those who are intent on keeping the old earl’s money for themselves which crosses the line into melodrama. But otherwise, A Lady’s Lesson in Scandal is a beautifully written and intense love story with complex, flawed characters who may not always be likeable but whose motivations are clear and understandable. Their continual reappraising of each other through words and actions is masterfully done, and I was pleased that Nell ends the book as essentially the same fiercely intelligent, strong woman she started out as, but has finally learned to trust in her happiness with the man she loves. I can’t do anything other than but the book on my Keeper shelf. A-
– Caz Owens
Given that this month’s theme involved reading a book featuring a favorite trope, I immediately thought of Harlequin. Not only do I have a large stash of titles from various Harlequin lines, but many of the series titles I pick up tend to fall into at least one of two categories – (1)autobuy authors and (2)tropes I love.
My pick this month hits both of those categories. I love “second chance at love” stories and after being introduced to Janice Kay Johnson’s work here at AAR, she’s become an autobuy author for me. Johnson is a prolific author, with books featuring everyday people and often meatier-than-average stories. Her 2014 One Frosty Night had a couple weak spots, but overall I really enjoyed this book.
Heroine Olivia Bowen has a lot on her plate. She enjoyed a very close relationship with her father, helping at the family hardware store and taking over after her father fell ill and later died. Olivia misses her father terribly and as her mother appears determined to move on by selling the family home and possibly even the business Olivia has grown to love, she finds herself caught up in family tension. Having her great high school love return to their small town is exactly what she doesn’t need right now.
Ben Hovik has returned to Crescent Creek as high school principal, with his teenage stepson in tow. He’s secretly hoping to renew his acquaintance with Olivia, but there’s definitely some baggage to overcome. As with many of Johnson’s novels, her lead characters are normal, likeable and relatable. At first I rolled my eyes a bit when I realized that it was a teenage breakup that had Olivia so determined not to have anything to do with Ben. It seemed a tad melodramatic, but I kept reading and as the details filled in, her reaction seemed more understandable.
Olivia is certainly under lots of stress, and Ben starts off as just one more stressor. In addition, their relationship was Olivia’s first deep romantic love and the abrupt way in which Ben dumped her shaped a lot of her early adult life. After all, he did basically go off to college and then tell her that now that he’d met other girls, she just wasn’t enough for him. I can see how that would hurt.
However, many years have passed. Both Ben and Olivia are a lot more mature than when they first fell in love. In this story, that maturity makes all the difference. Olivia doesn’t want to spend tons of time around Ben at first, but when they get thrown together, she’s mature enough to hear him out and to consider that his actions now don’t match those of the 18 year old who went off to college and left her behind. I enjoyed watching them find their way back to one another.
So, the weaknesses I mentioned? Well, much of it stems from the fact that this story seems to have too much crammed into it. There’s the tension between Olivia and her mother that I alluded to before, there are situations that Ben’s stepson faces at the high school, and then there’s a mystery surrounding an unidentified young girl found dead in the area. While I enjoyed elements of each of these plot threads, it felt like none of them got enough attention, resulting in a book that occasionally felt overcrowded. Because of this, my reaction is somewhat mixed. I really enjoyed Ben and Olivia’s story. However, while I enjoy a good backstory, this one had too much going on and I felt pulled in too many directions. I’d still recommend One Frosty Night, but with that caveat. Grade: B-