I’ve been desperate to read The Earl Takes All since I finished Falling into Bed With a Duke, the first book in Lorraine Heath’s Hellions of Havisham Hall series. Even though at that point no synopsis had been published, I had an inkling of where this story might be going – which says a lot for Ms Heath’s ability to bury hints and subtext in whichever story she happens to be telling at the time – and I have been really, REALLY curious as to how she was going to pull off such a difficult premise.
Edward Alcott, younger – by an hour – twin brother of Albert, the Earl of Greyling, was introduced to readers in the previous book as a bit of a scoundrel. Although physically identical to his brother, Edward is completely different in temperament, and while it’s clear they share a strong bond of affection, it’s also clear that Albert is perhaps a little disappointed in his scapegrace brother. The biggest bone of contention between them, however, is that Edward just can’t get on with Albert’s wife, Julia, and in fact, makes a point of being unpleasant or outrageous whenever she is around.
But now, Albert is dead, killed while he, Edward and their close friend Viscount Locksley are in Africa on safari. With his dying breath, Albert exhorts Edward to “be me” – needing him to take care of Julia, who is expecting their baby. But he asks more than that Edward should provide financially for his widow – Albert wants his brother to take his place as Julia’s husband, believing that news of his death could cause her to lose the baby they both want so desperately. Edward can do nothing other than agree, and after a long and arduous journey, he arrives back in England ready to carry out his brother’s final wishes until after his child is born.
It’s not long before Edward realises the enormity of the task he has taken on. Not only does he have to take great care not to give himself away, which is difficult because he doesn’t know all that much about his brother’s relationship with Julia; he also has to take on the responsibilities of an earldom, which turn out to be far more detailed and numerous than he expected. Complicating things still further, Edward also has to contend with his long-banked desire for Julia and with Julia’s bewilderment at her husband’s strange reluctance to get physically or emotionally close to her.
Edward’s intention has always been to tell Julia the truth after the birth of her baby, but as time progresses and he comes to know the witty, generous and sensual woman that she really is, he finds himself racing well past desire and headlong into love with her. When she discovers the truth, she’s going to despise him more than she ever did – but what if he doesn’t tell her?
For her part, Julia has discovered things she never knew about herself during her husband’s four month absence. She missed him dreadfully of course, but also liked having her own space and being able to do what she liked when she liked. She feels she has changed somewhat since he has been away and learned to relish her independence, but Albert has changed, too. She puts some of that down to his mourning for his brother, and suggests that perhaps they have to learn how to be a couple again. Even so, there is more to the changes in her husband than those wrought by grief; he is more daring, more spontaneous, his kisses are more intoxicating than ever, and incredibly, she finds herself even more deeply in love than before.
While I loved The Earl Takes All, I can see that it might be the sort of book that readers will react to strongly and will either love or hate. The fact that the hero spends half the book deceiving the heroine is difficult to get to grips with, even though Edward’s motivations are understandable and he continually questions his decisions. He is torn between duty and desire and while the situation he is in is certainly an unusual one, his emotions and inner conflict feel very real. I understand why some might find the initial premise problematic, and indeed, Lorraine Heath set herself quite the challenge. As she says in her author’s note, she had to make sure that readers didn’t fall in love with Albert before she killed him off; and also, she had to contend with the English marriage laws at the time, which did not allow a woman to marry her late husband’s brother. (This law wasn’t changed until 1921). She also has to convincingly turn Edward from the reprobate we met in the previous book into a responsible and compassionate man. Before, he was given to hard drinking, gambling and womanizing, and his relationship with Julia was a very difficult one; he seemed to resent her for taking his brother away from him, and made no bones about showing that resentment. But even then, Ms Heath managed to convey the sense that here was a man who wasn’t quite what he seemed, and also to plant the idea that there was more behind Edward’s dislike of his brother’s wife than he let on.
What she does very skilfully here is to show readers the real Edward while not making him into an entirely different person. The old, roguish Edward is still there under the surface, but the ‘new’ Edward is a man who has never been tested before who rises to the challenge and discovers he’s more than up to it; and he is ultimately revealed to be a truly swoonworthy hero.
Emotions run high in this book right from the first page, and again, I realise that won’t suit everyone, but for me, it’s like catnip. We watch Edward struggling with his grief for his brother and his feelings for Julia; Julia devastated by grief and guilt when she learns the truth; both of them coming to terms with what it will mean if they want to be together, and Julia coming to fully understand the magnitude of the sacrifice that Edward is willing to make for her. It’s complex, it’s messy and Ms Heath handles it all with confidence and sensitivity, never negating the truth of Julia’s feelings for one brother even as she is falling for the other.
This author’s ability to explore the gamut of human emotions is what draws me to her books time and again, and I admit that I was choked up on several occasions while reading this one. My one criticism is that perhaps it’s a bit of a stretch to believe that Julia wouldn’t have known it wasn’t Albert who had returned from Africa, but that really is a minor point and isn’t something I found myself dwelling on because the story is so well set-up. The Earl Takes All is an angsty, gorgeously sensual and beautifully developed romance, the chemistry between the leads is scorching hot and the emotions are real and leap off the page. It’s definitely going onto my keeper shelf.