Women rarely refuse the wicked Earl of Hepplewood, whose daring exploits are only whispered about. But when his new governess answers his proposition with a slap, then stalks out, references in hand, Hepplewood finds more than his face is burning.
Isabella Aldridge has brains, bravado, and beauty—but the latter is no use to a servant. Her circumstances are desperate, and with Hepplewood’s words ringing in her ears, Isabella realizes she must barter her most marketable asset . . . her body.
But when fate sends Isabella back into Hepplewood’s arms, the earl must make an impossible choice—draw Isabella down into his sensual darkness, or behave with honor for the first time in his life.
One of the things Ms Carlyle does so well in this story is show the very real difficulties and danger faced by a young woman in the heroine’s situation. Well-born and gently-bred Isabella Aldridge was left with nothing upon the death of her father and had to assume the care of her two younger sisters (a half-sister and a step-sister). While her upbringing seemed to her at the time to have been idyllic, she has come to realise that perhaps her father did not do his best for her, being too easy-going and concerned with his own pursuits and interests. His lack of guidance led to Isabella’s marriage to an unsuitable young man whose father detested her and whose grief on the early death of his son led him to spread horrible rumours to the effect that Isabella had seduced and then murdered her husband.
Even before her father’s death, Isabella had been working as a governess in the household of Lady Petershaw, known throughout society as La Séductrice because of her former career as a high-class courtesan. Now the lady’s sons are now old enough to go to school, and Isabella has to secure another position in order to support herself and her sisters. She not only has to contend with the day-to-day worry of keeping a roof over their heads and food on the table, but she lives in constant fear of her slimy cousin – a man known for his sexual preference for young girls – who keeps asking her to marry him and hinting that he has a legal right to the guardianship of Isabella’s sisters.
Assailed on all fronts and with nobody to turn to, Isabella travels to the north of England in hopes of securing a position as governess to the five-year-old daughter of the Earl of Hepplewood, a man whose name is a byword for debauchery, and who certainly seems to more than live up to his reputation. One look at the beautiful Isabella and he wants to bed her – but instead of seducing her, he dismisses her, telling her she’s too lovely to be a governess and that she should make the most of her assets by finding herself another husband or, even better, a rich protector.
Dejected, Isabella returns to London, and continues to look for work. After several more rejections, she decides there is only thing she can do. As Hepplewood had suggested, Isabella’s beauty and breeding make her ideally suited to become a kept woman, a mistress, and she reasons that becoming a “fallen woman” will be a small price to pay in order to provide for her sisters and to keep them safe from her cousin.
She turns for help to Lady Petershaw who, while willing to help, does not scruple to tell Isabella that she isn’t really cut out for that sort of life. But she also recognises that Isabella has run out of options, and does her best to prepare her for life as a mistress. Through various acquaintances, her ladyship in effect brokers a deal between Isabella and a gentleman who is desirous of physical companionship, and I’m sure it will come as no surprise to learn that the man is none other than the Earl of Hepplewood.
Hepplewood is a widower who, on first acquaintance, is unpleasant, rude and clearly a man who is used to getting whatever he wants. As the story progresses and the author reveals more about him through words and most particularly his actions, the reader is presented with the portrait of a deeply troubled man whose arrogance and insistence on maintaining his ruthless control are really coping mechanisms. He doesn’t deny his terrible reputation or the truth behind it – but he never lies to Isabella, and while there’s certainly a murky side to him, he’s an utterly compelling and truly honourable man.
After their first night together, Hepplewood finds himself unaccountably burdened with an attack of conscience, and sends Isabella away. Fortunately, he honours the financial side of their agreement, which means that Isabella now has enough money to support herself and her sisters. Yet Hepplewood can’t forget her – and even though Isabella refuses his offer to return to his protection, she is unable to deny the strong pull between them. The relationship that develops between the couple is passionate and very intense, imbued with a sensuality that leaps off the page.
At this point, I feel I should mention the sex scenes, because they’re unlike those one would normally expect to find in a mainstream historical romance. Hepplewood’s insistence on maintaining control extends to every facet of his life – including in the bedroom, and Isabella finds herself alternately intrigued and ashamed by the reactions and emotions his lovemaking arouses in her. She wonders frequently if her desire to submit to him so entirely is normal even as she finds him impossible to resist. In fact, her willingness to let him take over completely in bed makes perfect sense, given the fact that for years, she has had to be completely self-sufficient. Being the one to make all the decisions is incredibly tiring, so her need to surrender the decision-making in this one area is understandable. So there’s an element of mild BDSM in the sex scenes, but that doesn’t overshadow the emotional impetus of the story.
And it’s the emotional focus which is the most powerful thing about this story. It’s well written, strongly characterised, and there is real depth to the connection between the protagonists. The Earl’s Mistress is an emotionally charged and satisfying story which pulled me in from the start and kept me enthralled until the very end.