Back in 2010, RWA National Conference was held in Orlando, and I was lucky enough to be able to attend. It was an exhausting and exhilarating experience, and during those days I met a number of people I had only interacted with online for years. Among them was writer Maggie Robinson (aka Margaret Rowe), who very graciously gave me an ARC of the anthology Lords of Passion, which has stories by her, Kate Pearce and Virginia Henley.
However, with me being a moody and unpredictable reader, the poor thing has languished in the humongous TBR Mountain Range since. Then, when I saw that the theme for January’s TBR review was shorts, this was the book I reached for. Unfortunately, less than twenty pages into the first novella, I was seeing red and couldn’t continue, so I grabbed the Charmed Anthology for that review instead (with less than stellar results—oh well, there are eleven more months to try for a hit).
I did finish the book, though, and now you get to suffer through my impressions of it.
The three stories are “Beauty and the Brute” by Virginia Henley, “How to Seduce a Wife” by Kate Pearce and “Not Quite a Courtesan” by Maggie Robinson. The dreaded blurb:
It’s been three years since Lady Sarah Caversham set eyes on arrogant Charles Lennox – the husband her father chose for her to settle a gambling debt. Now Charles has returned, unaware that the innocent ingenue he wed is determined to turn their marriage of convenience into a blissfully passionate affair…Louisa March’s new husband, Nicholas, is a perfect gentleman in bed – much to her disappointment. She longs for the kind of fevered passion found in her beloved romance novels. But when she dares him to seduce her properly, she discovers that Nicholas is more than ready to meet her challenge, over and over again…Sensible bluestocking Prudence Thorn has been too busy keeping her cousin Sophy out of trouble to experience any adventures of her own. But when Sophy begs Prudence’s help in saving her marriage, Pru encounters handsome, worldly Darius Shaw. And under Darius’ skilled tutelage, Pru learns just how delightful a little scandal can be…
~ * ~
First, the one story I enjoyed almost unreservedly: “How to Seduce a Wife” by Kate Pearce
Nicholas March, 8th Earl of Stortford, is determined to be pretty much everything his father wasn’t. His father—and presumably most of his male ancestors—have mostly been self-centered wastrels and confirmed rakehells devoted to feeding their own vices and utterly uncaring of the effects their excesses had on the people around them. Like oh say, wives and offspring. For starters, Nicholas decided to be the soul of propriety, civility and respect towards his wife, never doing anything that would embarrass or, heaven forefend, humiliate her. Then, he married a young innocent heiress with a view to restore the family’s finances to order.
And all was good if a little meh, his life running according to plan, until Nicholas discovers that he’s not the only one who’s rather unsatisfied with the current state of affairs. Indeed, Louisa is so unenthusiastic about sharing her lord’s bed (once a week, fully dressed, as is proper, natch) that she’s resorted to reading lurid gothic novels whenever he sends word he’ll be visiting her.
What’s a formerly renowned lover to do?
Indeed, seduce his wife seems the obvious answer. The question is, how? She’s an innocent, not a courtesan, an experienced if lonely widow, or a bored society matron. She’s also respectable on her own right—and didn’t he promise himself never to embarrass or humiliate his wife? How about shocking her with the depth of your passion?
One of the things I enjoyed the most about this book was that the author made the protagonists actually talk to each other and to other people about topics that were uncomfortable for them—as individuals and as a couple. How do you tell the person you are bound to for the rest of your life that you crave sexual release, that you hoped for intimacy, that you feel he’s holding himself away from you? How do you ask a friend for advice on how to sexually satisfy your wife?
And then, there’s the sexual tension. Once Nicholas is aware of Louisa’s longings, he is determined to do a proper job of seducing her into sensuality, with most excellent results. And yet, this is not one of those über controlled lovers who can bring their heroines to a screaming orgasm without being affected as well—which brings its own rewards, to be sure.
Minor quibbles I had with the story were the ubiquitous wise friend, the heart of gold—also wise—courtesan, and an anachronistic sex club. Then again, the story being a mere 82 pages long, it makes sense to center it almost exclusively to the two protagonists, their feelings, thoughts, and reactions to and about each other, rather than squander page space on secondary characters.
A line I particularly enjoyed: “But he had much more to show her, so much more for her to enjoy with him. And that was what it was all about, wasn’t it? Not a quick poke, but a lifetime of erotic experiences to share with one woman—this woman.”
I liked both Nicholas and Louisa, and finished the story believing they stand a good chance to continue liking each other as they get to know each other.
“How to Seduce a Wife” gets a 7.25 out of 10
~ * ~
Next up, the last story in the anthology, “Not Quite a Courtesan” by Maggie Robinson
Darius Shaw’s family is rather disreputable—and currently in dire financial straits. Coming back from a long trip abroad loaded with treasures he expects to sell well—to a very specific market—in hopes of finally buying a property somewhere far from London and his brother, where he can live in peace. Before getting to that, though, he must deal with his half-wit brother Cyrus, his brother’s young wife, his recently deceased uncle’s mistress, and one Prudence Thorne, erstwhile guardian to Darius newly acquired—and even more recently estranged—sister in law.
Not, it must be said, the most auspicious of homecomings.
Pru is no more pleased with the situation than Darius. After many years of addiction to laudanum, her mother has recently died, and Sophy, the young and very wealthy cousin Pru raised in her own mother’s stead, has eloped with an entirely ineligible man, with predictable consequences. What’s a rather bossy and cynical widow to do, but try to manipulate circumstances—and people—to fix things again for her only family?
Things go predictably awry when neither Sophy nor Cyrus are amenable to Pru’s interference, and the only haven to be found is in the house where Darius—and his *ahem* merchandise—reside. And once there, matters between the two progress in a predictable manner.
Yes, I’ve used predictable three times in two paragraphs—this part of the story is telegraphed within two pages of Darius and Pru’s first meeting. She’s curious and ignorant. He’s experienced and sensual. They happen to be literally surrounded by countless objects designed to sexually stimulate them. Gee, wonder what’ll happen now.
However, I confess I was more bothered by Pru’s backstory. Another innocent yet rich widow whose first husband died in his mistress’ bed (well, close enough to qualify for the cliché), and another would-be martyr who devoted “the best years of her life” to caring for a mother and cousin who couldn’t care less about her.
And yet, there is a sense of fun to this story and to Darius in particular. He has devoted most of his adult life to hunting “the rare and the randy” to sell to well-off and often slightly deviant aristocrats, often in order to keep his brother out of prison, and his only ambition is to live a peaceful and obscure life in a farm somewhere. Never mind that he knows nothing about farming and is deeply allergic to hay to boot.
And Pru is finally fed up enough with her own martyrdom, erm, drive to take care of people—whether they want her to or not—to explore what else there may be to life. Particularly life as it pertains to her own body.
Favorite lines: “That is possible?”
“Everything is anatomically correct and within the purview of a normally limber and morally ambiguous man”
Besides Pru’s background, I enjoyed the two protagonists. I also liked that she’s almost thirty, much older than most historical heroines and, despite the martyr tendency, mature enough to know what she wants out of life and out of a relationship. I finished the story believing the two actually have a chance to be happy together.
“Not Quite a Courtesan” gets a 6.75 out of 10.
~ * ~
And now we come to the story that almost made me purposefully destroy a book—something that is anathema chez aztec. “Beauty and the Brute” by Virginia Henley.
The story starts with thirteen year old Sarah and eighteen year old Charles being forced into marriage by their parents. Sarah is the still too-thin, coltish daughter of a cold and selfish beauty, and Charles is the spoiled heir to a duke—they pretty much hate each other on sight, and he is particularly cruel to her. Fortunately, they part—she returns to England, to live chastely as a wife-in-name-only and be tutored until her majority, him to embark on his promised Grand Tour of the continent.
Three years later, Charles returns home, supposedly changed for the better by the hardships endured during his travels. He sees a now beautiful and well dressed Sarah, and immediately falls in everlasting love with her—never mind that he doesn’t realize she’s the flat chested, gray little girl he’s married to. She’s determined to make him fall in love with him and then tell him she hates him.
Where to start with my ranting?
How about a father selling his thirteen year old daughter for a title, and another one whoring his son to settle a gambling debt? I don’t doubt it happened—I know worse happens today, every day. What made me see red is seeing it in a story that is supposed to be romantic, today, to women.
And then to have it all be okay because, three years later, while she’s still a freaking child of sixteen, he comes back and discovers she’s beautiful and polished and popular, and now he wants her?
They spend what, a week together, talking about nothing that matters to either of them, but it’s love—because she’s beautiful. Would Charles devote one second of his time to Sarah is she hadn’t turned into a beauty? Absolutely not.
Would he have refrained from pursuing her if it turned out she was not his wife? Hell, no—Charles doesn’t spare a thought for his wife when he falls instantly in lust with Sarah. He doesn’t think about his wife at all, until he’s told the young girls he’s panting after is, in fact, his wife.
And Sarah is okay with this, because he’s so attractive, and an accomplished flirt, and she’s a sixteen year old headlong in lust.
Oh my good god, I’m still so angry about this.
But that’s not all. We have all the stupid unbelievable details. For example:
How about the fact that pretty much everyone in society knows Sarah was a child bride—and in all likelihood still a virgin—and she’s younger than most society chits making their come outs, yet
a) she’s invited everywhere and is very popular,
b) she’s asked by her mother in law to sponsor her sister in law—who is a few years older than Sarah!—
c) has never been flirted with, to the point that all Charles has to do is tell her that “the minuet was designed for courtship” and she’s panting for him.
But it’s okay—they luuuuuuuuuuuurve each other, now that she’s pretty and acceptable to him.
Rage, unbelievable rage.
“Beauty and the Brute” gets a 2.00 out of 10.