She’s caught between a rake and certain ruin …
Felicity Worthington’s only hope of avoiding poverty—or worse—is to accept her distant cousin’s dubious bequest…a thriving, high-class brothel. Felicity has 90 days to convince her cousin’s solicitors that Gareth Alexander has taught her the art of pleasing a man, though she’s more interested in the gentleman she glimpses beneath Gareth’s debauched airs, than in the rake he’s become.
In the business of love … How much should he teach her?
Gareth Alexander, Marquis of Heathgate, has little incentive to help a spinster learn to manage a brothel—except that the alternatives for the prim, pretty Miss Worthington are even worse. His resistance to teaching Felicity how to be a madam leaves Gareth wondering if the honor he’d thought long dead still survives, and if that honor allows him to yield to the lady’s ruinous scheme…and to their shared desires.
I will admit, much as I adore Grace Burrowes’ writing, that I rolled my eyes when I saw the premise of this book. A rakish marquess is tasked with the ruin of a proper and well-bred young woman when she inherits –of all things – a brothel from a distant relative.
But this IS Grace Burrowes – and while I didn’t love the last book in this series (Gabriel), I’ve a high opinion of her storytelling abilities and have really enjoyed practically everything of hers I’ve ever read, so I decided it was time to take a leap of faith.
I’m glad I did. In the hands of a lesser author, this premise could have easily turned out to be an excuse for a bonk-fest in which the protagonists got down and dirty straight away and often thereafter and discovered at the end – ta-dah! – that they were in lurve. But Ms B isn’t a lesser author, and what she’s given us is another tender and sensual love story in which a man who has walled himself off emotionally is essentially redeemed and brought back to life by a determined young woman whose quiet dignity alternately amazes and annoys him.
It’s true that there are probably more sex scenes in this book than in most (all?) of Ms Burrowes’ other books, but they didn’t feel superfluous to requirements or as though the author had thought “time for another sex scene” every ten pages. They certainly add spice to the story, although they’re not always entirely comfortable; and more importantly, they add to the character development of the protagonists in subtle but essential ways.
Gareth Alexander, Marquess of Heathgate was in his early twenties when he lost almost his entire family in a boating accident. He had been plain “Mister” Alexander back then, the fifth in line to the title and thus never expecting to inherit a marquisate. But the family tragedy, which only his mother and younger brother, Andrew, survived, suddenly thrust him into a limelight for which he was completely unprepared. Not only that, but the fact that he had been the only family member to abstain from taking the boat trip in the first place left him open to the unpleasant rumour that he had engineered the accident in order to dispose of his inconveniently placed male relatives so that he could inherit the title.
While still grieving, Gareth had to learn quickly to administer several large estates as well as to face down those rumours branding him a multiple-murderer. In the years following the accident, he worked hard – and played hard – increasing his family’s wealth to vast proportions while building impenetrable walls around those parts of him that cared for anybody and for society’s good opinion. He eschews drink and gambling, but not sex – and has become a womaniser of the first order, the kind of man who doesn’t frequent good society or associate with the sort of respectable females a man of his status will one day be expected to marry.
Felicity Worthington may be the daughter of a viscount, but she and her sister are nonetheless living in what can only be described as “genteel poverty”. Their father, Viscount Fairly, was a noted wastrel and gambler who neglected to provide for them in the event of his demise, and because he has died without leaving a male heir, his lands and titles are now subject to escheat (the transfer of all property to the Crown). Due to a bequest from a distant cousin (Callista), the sisters are now faced with better prospects – although for Felicity, the legacy is an onerous one. Their relation was a noted madam, and the property she has left them is a high-class brothel. Under the terms of the will, the brothel cannot be sold until a year has passed, and during that time, Felicity must run the place. Not only will this association with a house of ill-repute damage her reputation irretrievably, but the will also stipulates that she must learn ALL of the arts of being a madam – including the sexual ones. Furthermore, Felicity is given two choices as to her method of “tuition” – she can seek out Heathgate, or Viscount Riverton, a middle-aged, depraved roué. Having a very vague acquaintance with Riverton – who was one of her father’s cronies – she knows she could never bear for him to touch her, let alone teach her, so Gareth is her only choice.
When Gareth learns of Felicity’s situation he is stunned. He knew Callista and finds it difficult to believe that she would impose such conditions on a well-bred young lady. But Felicity insists the will is watertight, and if she is to inherit, she has three months in which to meet all the conditions of the bequest.
This presents Gareth with an extraordinary dilemma. A “lord of rakes” he may be, but he draws the line at ruining an innocent young woman, regardless of the fact that Felicity has accepted the necessity. Even as he agrees to teach her about the business side of running a “house of pleasure” and to educate her about clothes, food, wine, gambling and all the other things a good madam needs to know, he is trying to think of ways he can avoid taking that final step. It’s not that he doesn’t desire her – he does, very much, and more than that, he comes to like, admire and respect her. It’s that his – perhaps rusty – sense of honour baulks at the prospect of taking her virtue and making her an outcast from good society.
This is a romance, so it’s no spoiler to say that as the story progresses, Gareth and Felicty fall for each other. The relationship is very well developed, with both characters falling by increments as they learn more about each other. Felicity is very shrewd and her complete acceptance of her situation shows her strength and determination, as well as flummoxing Gareth from time to time. And his façade begins to crack the more time he spends with her, so he tries to push her away at every turn, knowing their time together is finite. Especially enjoyable is the way Felicity is able to get under Gareth’s skin and see the truth of the considerate, honourable man beneath the cold, sometimes hurtful exterior.
The romance is lovely, the sex scenes are sensual, and the characterisations of both the principals and the main secondary characters are very well-developed. Ms Burrowes has impressed me in particular with the way she writes male friendships and familial relationships in all her books, and this is no exception. The relationship between Gareth and Andrew is a delight to read and one of the book’s high points.
Where the book falls down, though, is in the fact that Gareth, a man with a mind like a steel trap, who is renowned for his business acumen, doesn’t think to read the actual will until near the very end of the book. Of course, had he done so, this would have been a very short book, if it had existed at all! Even though Ms Burrowes does a pretty good job of tying up loose ends and explaining everything, at the end, it’s still an oversight that is impossible to overlook. That’s not to say it’s impossible to ignore, because it isn’t. I was so caught up in the developing romance and captivated by Gareth, who is a wonderfully complex character, that I allowed myself to accept the flawed premise and enjoy the story. There is a secondary plotline featuring the mysterious David Holbrook (who is not-so-mysterious if you’ve read the early Windham books), and a dastardly plan engineered by someone with a grudge against Gareth to be resolved, too, which all comes racing to a satisfactory conclusion towards the end.
As always with books by this author, I came away from Gareth feeling as though I’d been put through the emotional mangle. While the story certainly has its flaws, I can’t fault Ms Burrowes’ writing or her talent for creating deep, emotional connections between her characters, and between them and the reader. Gareth may not be my favourite book in this series, but it’s certainly well worth reading and is a book I’d recommend to anyone who likes an angsty, yet emotionally satisfying and sensual romance.