Carver Danforthe, Earl of Everscham, has a reputation for being a wild rogue—not for indulging the ambitions of his sister’s maid.
But Molly Robbins’ unique dress designs have caught the eye of society’s elite, and if it means her own dress shop, Molly will make a deal with the devil himself—or his proxy, the notoriously naughty earl.
But becoming his mistress is not a part of their arrangement. It’s right there in the contract’s small print: No Tomfoolery. Until he proposes a scandalous new addendum to their contract…
I confess that I was feeling a little jaded when I started reading this book. I’ve read or listened to several titles over the last few weeks which I’d classify as “fluff” – light-hearted, often comedic romances which, while enjoyable, are like the proverbial Chinese meal: Half an hour later you’ve forgotten all about it and want another one! I should also make it clear that I have nothing against “fluff” – in fact, I’m a fan when it’s done well, and when I started reading, I thought I’d stumbled across a better-class-of-fluff, because right from the start, Miss Molly felt a bit more substantial in terms of its characterisation and dialogue than some of my other recent reads.
The book opens with the eponymous Molly absconding from her own wedding. She had previously spent twelve years living in London as the lady’s maid and confidante of Lady Mercy Danforthe, and prior to departing the city to go home for her wedding, had been offered the money to set up her own dressmaking business instead of getting married. The offer, however, came not from Lady Mercy, but from her brother, Carver Danforthe, the Earl of Everscham – and Molly is heading back to London to take him up on the offer.
As this is the fourth book in a series and I haven’t read the others, I’m not aware of how Molly and the earl have interacted in the past, but when she shows up at the town house with a contract for the loan of a sum of money, it’s clear that there’s some history between them; he teases her, frequently using his nickname for her – “mouse” – and she treats him with the kind of resigned indulgence which is a dead giveaway; here we have a young woman rather desperately in love but with no hope or expectation of a return.
The way their relationship is presented in first part of the book worked very well. There is a lot of actual wit in the exchanges between them and a real sense that, despite their difference in rank, they have a strong affection for each other. Something else which also stuck with me, and for which I give props to the author, is the fact that she includes the odd detail here and there which one doesn’t often come across in historical romance. For example, as a young woman from a small village and a servant, Molly would not have been very well educated (and probably wouldn’t have been at all educated, had it not been for her association with Lady Mercy) and so the contract she presents to Carver (and seriously, what sort of name is that for a British aristocrat?) is littered with spelling mistakes, and her handwriting isn’t too good. Small things, but they nonetheless serve to add a bit of realism to a story which, by virtue of being a servant/aristocrat romance isn’t going to possess a great deal of it!
One of the things Molly has insisted upon and written into the contract is that there will be no hanky-panky, or “Tom Foolery”, as she calls it. The problem is, that Molly’s newly emerging confidence is proving annoyingly attractive to Carver – and well, she’s always found him attractive, but as a servant in his household, couldn’t allow herself to admit it. But now, she can’t stop thinking about him, even though she knows there’s likely nothing in it for her but eventual heartbreak.
But around the halfway point – and even with the addition of an anvil-heavy sub-plot – the pace starts to flag, and Carver starts to act like a complete arse. Many of the things he does for Molly are, he thinks, because he wants her to be comfortable, but which in fact seem more than a little controlling; and there comes a point at which he decides he wants to solve all her problems so that she can be free to concentrate fully on him. I hope the author was deliberately trying to show her hero at his arrogantly selfish worst, because that definitely felt a bit creepy. And then there’s the fact that Molly wants their association to be low-key and discreet, but he, being used to doing exactly as he likes, is like a kid with a new toy and clearly has trouble with the concept of discretion; so it’s no wonder that she soon becomes the subject of some very nasty gossip.
The pace picks up again towards the end, but despite my enthusiasm at the beginning of the book, I finished it feeling that it was merely okay and not a book I’d have a pressing need to re-read. Too many things were not properly developed or fully explored, and, as often happens with cross-class romances, the class issue was really not as much of an issue for the two protagonists as it should have been. The characterisation was uneven – both Molly and Carver are attractive, clearly drawn characters, but there’s an element of the stereotypical to them both; she’s intelligent and plucky, and he had an affection-starved childhood. He is presented as an unprincipled libertine, someone famed for his amours who also likes strong drink and plenty of it. Indeed, when Molly presents him with her contract, he’s three sheets to the wind, and it’s obviously not the first time she’s seen him like that. But in no time at all, he’s more often sober than not, getting out of bed before noon, surreptitiously seeing that Molly finds decent lodgings, finding her some trustworthy help as her business takes off, and secretly providing her landlady with funds for repairs to the lodging house and to provide better food. Actually, I was surprised that Molly, who is not unintelligent, couldn’t see through his schemes.
I was also completely unconvinced by the ease with which Molly sets up her dressmaking business. With one silly stunt and Carver’s behind-the-scenes influence, she finds herself with a thriving business within a few weeks, which was just too much of a stretch.
By a strange quirk of co-incidence, I was listening to the new audiobook of Loretta Chase’s Silk is for Seduction (which is set in the same year, and which also boasts a modiste and an aristocrat as the central characters) at around the same time I was reading this, so it was impossible to avoid making comparisons. In the Chase book, we get to see how hard the characters to work to maintain their business, how precarious their lives are and how carefully they have to tread to make sure they stay within the confines of what society expects of them. Molly just accosts a woman in the street, spins her some sort of yarn and is engaged to make her a dress.
Miss Molly Robbins ended up being a decent read, but it didn’t live up to my early expectations. The relationship between Molly and Carver had a real freshness to it at the beginning, and their exchanges were filled with wit and affection; but once they became involved, the freshness disappeared and they became just like any other couple in a romance.