The Countess Takes a Lover, by Bonnie Dee.
This is a very well executed short novel/long novella erotic romance from Samhain, set in London during the Regency (1800s). Ms Dee, who was a new-to-me writer, uses a few reliable tropes of the romance genre, but her excellent execution makes them feel fresh.
And for once, the blurb is nigh perfect!
Countess Meredith du Chevalier, a widow with a reputation for being sexually adventurous, is intrigued when she is approached by a gentleman who wishes her to “make a man” of his son. Sensing a passionate man beneath Christopher Whitby’s reserved exterior, Meredith takes on the challenge, inviting the botanist to her country home to revitalize her abandoned greenhouse.
Chris finds people to be a chaotic, animalistic species, and has chosen to devote his life to the study of plants. One kiss from the vivacious countess, however, and his inner animal is aroused. But lust is only a fraction of what he feels for the vulnerable woman hiding behind a brittle façade. He resolves to coax her to grow until her petals unfurl into glorious bloom.
To her surprise, Meredith finds Chris brings much more to life than just fallow soil. But just as their love begins to thrive, he learns about the secret arrangement. Meredith must risk her heart for the most dangerous lesson of all—love.
At a little over 130 pages, The Countess takes a Lover is, again, a bit shorter that most of the books I usually like, but the pacing is so well done as to make that just a minor quibble and not very noteworthy.
While having a wealthy society widow with a tarnished reputation as a heroine is not all that common, the fact that she was unhappy—and sexually unfulfilled—during her marriage is fairly common in romance novels indeed. In this case, Meredith wasn’t merely neglected or unhappy, but suffered true emotional and sexual abuse of increasing degree at the hands of her husband until his death. Further, her veiled cries for help to her family fell on deaf ears—and cold hearts—all of which left her deeply scarred emotionally.
However, she possesses a will strong enough to allow her to rise above this, and free herself—for the most part at least—from her past. She discovers her knack for business first, and the power of her sensuality soon enough after that, and creates a life for herself in which she is not accountable to anyone else. Of course, given her background so far, she equates this contentment with happiness.
Her self-confidence and self-awareness are very evident, as well as engaging, from the very first scene, at the end of her meeting with Christopher’s father:
“Have no fear on that account.” Meredith smiled. “I look forward to meeting the young man. What was his name? Christopher? After an initial introduction, I’ll let you know if I’ll be able to assist you in this matter.” She took another sip of her tea, letting Whitby know by her manner that he was dismissed. She’d long ago learned if one acted like royalty, one was likely to be treated as such.
Of course, this meeting both starts off the story and sets the lovers up for another staple of romance lore: betrayal. Meredith lies to Christopher, both about her motives to meet him and her initial attraction to him. She can hardly tell him, after all, that his father has agreed to exchange favors with her. She’ll “make a man” out of the studious Christopher, and his father will push through Parliament a bill that will increase her wealth down the road. Instead, Meredith tells him she felt attracted to his ‘quiet’ potential.
A welcome change from the usual run of romantic stories is that the hero is both the socially awkward and the inexperienced one in the relationship. It’s true that this doesn’t last very long, for one of the things that attracts Meredith to Christopher is the fact that behind his bookishness hides a strong and passionate personality.
During their first lovemaking, Christopher’s reactions are lovely rendered. He is insecure and scared, surprised, amazed, moved, grateful. I could very well see him there.
Ms Dee’s characterization felt very well realized to me. It’s true that there’s a bit of stereotyping to fill in the blanks on some of the secondary characters (for example, the overbearing and not wholly honorable Mr Whitby, the shallow social butterfly Mrs Whitby), but there were other characters painted very deftly with merely a few broad strokes.
I particularly enjoyed—to the point of smiling and reading it over three times before moving on—a conversation/monologue between Meredith and her personal maid, Cecile. And I remember fondly the non-verbal communication with the old man playing the violin, his arthritic hands and knowing smile.
Regardless of the use of what can be seen as genre stereotypes, the writing is engaging, and the story flows nicely from the first scene, to the protagonists’ first meeting, and on… Really, all the way to the end there isn’t a false note in the narrative or the characterization of the protagonists.
I found the scene where Christopher discovers Meredith’s deception and his father’s betrayal to be very well done, and the subsequent scenes felt true to both of their characters and their feelings. Mostly, I like that the resolution of the conflict is not rushed into a few paragraphs, happening within minutes. It is much more believable the way it’s written.
I have issues with some of the word choices, because I wonder whether they are historically accurate—but frankly, language and a couple other small details aside, the story rose way above those minor (for me) flaws.
Another quibble I have is with how and when Meredith shared details from her marriage with Christopher. It is quite early in their acquaintance, and even earlier in their intimacy, and her reactions puzzled me. If it’s something she shares freely, shouldn’t the pain be less noticeable by now (meaning that Chris should not have been able to perceive it)? Conversely, if it’s something she rarely shares—the pain is too vivid, the scars too raw—how could she just blurt it out to him?
But altogether, this was a very enjoyable read, and I will be looking forward to reading more of Ms Dee’s work.
7.5 out of 10