Felix Rivendale, the Marquess of Wrenworth, is The Ideal Gentleman, a man all men want to be and all women want to possess. Felix himself almost believes this golden image. But underneath is a damaged soul soothed only by public adulation.
Louisa Cantwell needs to marry well to support her sisters. She does not, however, want Lord Wrenworth—though he seems inexplicably interested in her. She mistrusts his outward perfection and the praise he garners everywhere he goes.But when he is the only man to propose at the end of the London season, she reluctantly accepts.
Louisa does not understand her husband’s mysterious purposes, but she cannot deny the pleasure her body takes in his touch. Nor can she deny the pull this magnetic man exerts upon her. But does she dare to fall in love with a man so full of dark secrets, anyone of which could devastate her, if she were to get any closer?
I’m a huge fan of Sherry Thomas’ writing, and of the way she injects a degree of grit and realism into a genre that is so often seen through rose-coloured lenses and softened around the edges. Her characters are, for the most part, rich, titled and good-looking, but it’s what’s underneath the surface veneer that really marks her books out as something special for me. Their emotional lives and the way they react to the situations in which they find themselves feel natural, despite the heightened angst they’re often facing, and even though sometimes, those reactions are unpalatable or may at first seem unsatisfying, they nonetheless feel right and completely in character for the personalities she has created.
The hero – or anti-hero – of The Luckiest Lady in London is Felix Rivendale, Marquess of Wrenworth, who made a very brief appearance in Ms Thomas’ first book, Private Arrangements is known throughout society as The Ideal Gentleman; devastatingly handsome, devastatingly charming and just as devastatingly rich, he’s a paragon of virtue and decorum. Unfailingly polite, able to put even the most nervous at their ease, Felix is London’s most eligible bachelor – and is determined to hang on to his bachelor status until he’s at least forty-five, when he plans to marry a seventeen year-old débutante with big boobs and no brain who’ll worship the ground he walks on and pose no threat whatsoever to his heart.
Nobody around Felix has the slightest inkling that it’s all an act and that he’s about the farthest thing from an Ideal Gentleman it’s possible to be. He’s unscrupulous, manipulative, and determined to get whatever he wants from life with no thought for anyone else’s comfort but his own; and he hides all of that beneath a charming, polished persona which is so well-established that even were anyone to discern the truth, any attempt to expose him would be given no credence whatsoever.
Felix is the product of a childhood which saw him used as an emotional football between his parents. His mother was forced to marry his father and resented it until her dying day, taking her revenge by being cold and distant, and by giving the elder Wrenworth to believe that Felix may not have been his. Thus, Felix grew up in an environment in which his father didn’t take much notice of him, and his mother only did so in order to annoy his father – and as soon as Felix was old enough to realise what was going on, he began to play the game himself. Following his parents’ early deaths, he determined never to allow himself to be put into a position of weakness by anyone, and certainly not to be put there by love.
Felix continues to cut a dash through London society – the men want to be him, the women just want him – never faltering and never failing to exploit every opportunity afforded him to get what he wants – until he meets Louisa Cantwell, a young woman of no particular beauty and no particular accomplishment.
At first, it seems that Louisa is like all the other young women Felix meets – stunned by his physical perfection and taken aback by the fact that The Ideal Gentleman, a man so far above her reach, should have taken notice of her at all. And to start with, she is just that. But just as he’s about to add her to his list of – if not bedpost notches, then at least, wannabe bedpost notches – and move on, he realizes that, incredibly, Louisa Cantwell has seen through his Ideal Gentleman persona and doesn’t at all like what she’s discovered lurking about underneath.
Naturally, this causes Felix no small degree of pique. But while there are any number of books in which the irresistibly gorgeous hero is so pissed off by the heroine’s disinterest in him that he starts to pursue her, what sets this book apart is that while Louisa is appalled at what she suspects is Felix’s true nature, she is also in the grip of a lust for him that’s so strong she can’t hide it from him. And he knows it. He knows she wants to run, screaming, from the room whenever they’re in one together, and he so loves knowing she wants him in spite of her dislike that he starts to seek her out and make excuses to be wherever she is.
Yet Louisa is also not all she seems to be. One of five daughters, she is determined to be the one who supports her mother and sisters (the youngest of whom is epileptic) by marrying well. She has just one chance – she is to be sponsored for a London season by one of her mother’s friends – and she has been preparing for years. For various reasons, her début is delayed, and she’s twenty-four by the time she makes her entrance into society. For the past eight years she has been carefully assimilating everything a young lady without fortune or accomplishment intent on finding herself a rich husband needs to know – how to flatter a gentleman with subtlety, how to show the correct degree of attention to his female relatives, and most of all, how to work out which potential husband is likely to be the most biddable.
And Felix knows this, too. He knows that Louisa’s amiability, her composure and deferential femininity are just as much of an act as his own, and does not scruple to let her know he’s found her out. I love romances in which the protagonists become friends before they become lovers and this idea of “two frauds together” provides the basis for the unlikely friendship that develops between them.
With Louisa, Felix is able to act more like his true self – opportunistic, devious and, it has to be said, deliciously naughty. And even though she knows she can’t trust him, Louisa can be more herself when she’s with Felix. I loved their shared sense of humour and their teasing, which is something which I was delighted to discover continues throughout the book.
Louisa is astonished when The Ideal Gentleman proposes marriage –but, having no other options, she accepts, in full awareness (she believes) of what she’s getting into. Felix may be Machiavellian, but he’s witty, intelligent and sexy and she thinks that as long as she doesn’t make the disastrous mistake of telling him she’s in love with him, they should be able to do fairly well. It doesn’t hurt that they’ve been desperate to rip each other’s clothes off and shag themselves witless since setting eyes on one another, and Louisa is certainly looking forward more than eagerly to getting Felix into bed and doing all the naughty things she’s imagined and that he’s hinted at.
I should say at this point that although Felix and Louisa have a lot of sex – and I mean A LOT – the book is not a bonk-fest, and I think that was the right way to go. Even though they’re burning up with lust, they don’t even kiss until after they’re married, which means that the level of sexual tension between them feels like a pressure cooker ready to explode. The sex scenes are not overly explicit, but they’re no less hot and steamy for that. I think that pages and pages of detailed horizontal Olympics would have become boring after a while and would certainly have been detrimental to the story overall.
Naturally, the course of true love does not run smooth. At first, Felix is unnerved by the force of his desire for Louisa and decides that he needs to keep away from her if he’s to avoid becoming completely in thrall to her. This leads him to act like a complete bastard, it’s true – but it’s also true that he quickly realises he’s behaved like a complete bastard and tries to make amends.
That’s another one of the things I really liked about the book. The conflicts between the couple are entirely of their own making – but so are the resolutions. Felix and Louisa both make mistakes – but they’re grown-up enough to admit them and to take the steps needed to fix things.
As is the case with the other books I’ve read by this author, what really sets her stories apart from the crowd is the depth and complexity of the characterisation. Felix may be an underhand cad in many ways, but the things that make him The Ideal Gentleman are not completely fabricated. Beneath it all, he’s a genuinely kind and charming man and despite his parents’ terrible example, he’s a romantic at heart. When he admits to himself that the accusations of selfishness Louisa has levelled at him are true, he is unwavering in his determination to do something that’s just for her; he fosters her interest in astronomy and meticulously plans lessons in maths and physics to further her understanding. His behaviour towards her mother and sisters is adorable and once he finally realises that what he had thought of an obsession with Louisa is actually a deep and abiding love, he’s terrified – but tells her how he feels anyway.
I’ve read some reviews saying that the resolution was rushed and that Louisa forgave Felix too easily for the deception he’d practiced on her, but I disagree. Going back to what I said at the beginning, Ms Thomas’ characters act in ways which feel right, even though at times, that may be somewhat frustrating to the reader. And here, I thought we got a perfect resolution. Both characters have to admit to faults and decide to do what’s needed to make their marriage work. I think what we see at the end of the book is just the beginning – and that what the author has done is to give the reader a glimpse of a relationship that is only going to get better.
The Luckiest Lady in London was a real treat from start to finish and if there are any fans of historical romance out there wondering whether or not to read it – all I can say is: it’s brilliant so stop wondering and get your hands of a copy as soon as possible.