Miss Sophia Vane, a hoyden of the first order, makes an unlikely match when she weds Nathaniel Ellison, the rich and wary Duke of Scarsdale. What starts with an unexpected friendship soon blooms into a fiery passion. But a betrayal plunges Sophia into the thorny world of London Society and entangles her in a labyrinth of manipulation and jealousy that will test the strength of her marriage. Behind her husband’s sudden icy facade, Sophia believes dwells the caring, passionate man she loves. To break through the barriers and reclaim their happiness, they must do more than simply cast away their pride. They must fight for their very lives.
My Seductive Innocent tells the story of an emotionally walled-off duke and the tavern maid he marries in order to prevent her scumbag of a father from abusing her and selling her into prostitution. Cross-class romance in historicals is always difficult to pull off because of the very strict social mores of the time, and even though the author does a fairly good job in showing that both characters have been backed into a corner, making marriage the only real solution, the massive social gulf between them does require rather a large suspension of disbelief. But if you can get past that and just go with the flow, then it’s an enjoyable read.
Nathan Ellison, Duke of Scarsdale is handsome, rich and determined that when he eventually marries, it will be solely for the begetting of an heir with no emotional involvement on either side. Growing up with a narcissistic mother whose extreme mood swings drove away Nathan’s father and meant that he never knew where he stood with her has led him to see all women as manipulative liars and he is determined never to allow a woman to worm her way into his heart.
On a visit to one of the less salubrious areas in the environs of Newmarket in order to purchase a horse for his disabled cousin, Scarsdale stops at a wayside tavern to ask for directions and steps in to save a young woman from being assaulted. Grateful for his intervention, the girl – Sophia Vane – offers to show the duke the way to the stables, but on the way, they are held up and Nathan is shot.
Sophia manages to get the injured man back to the tavern, where her father, a greedy, slovenly man whose only interest in Sophia or her young brother is a mercenary one, immediately determines to use his daughter to extort money from the duke. Once the duke’s wound has been seen to, Vane demands that he marry Sophia, given that he has irrevocably compromised her by being alone with her, both on the road and then later in the room while she tended to his injuries. Nathan basically tells the man where to get off – but once he realises the harsh realities of Sophia’s situation and discovers Vane’s plans to sell her nine-year-old brother Harry, he feels compelled to help her.
The only way he can truly protect her is to marry her – but she doesn’t see it that way, which surprises him, as every other woman he knows would be desperate to inveigle such an offer from him. It’s an extreme solution that does stretch the reader’s credulity, but Ms Johnstone just about gets away with it because of the way she thoroughly brings home Sophia’s lack of options and shows that Nathan’s innate decency won’t allow him to leave her to be abused. Sophia clearly has no conception of how difficult it is for a woman without references, reputation or any real skills to find employment. And as far as Scarsdale is concerned, all he needs a wife for is in order to get an heir, so one woman will do as well as another, given that he plans to get her pregnant and then leave her to her own devices in the country while he continues with his life as usual.
But he is completely unprepared for the way that Sophia’s honesty and compassion begin to creep under his carefully built defences, and more than that, is surprised at the intensity of the desire he feels for her. Sophia’s untutored passion is a revelation, and her unconditional love and overwhelming belief in him stun him and cause him to begin to reassess his view of their marriage and his own closed-off heart.
Scarsdale emerges as a man who, deep down, wants love and has a great capacity for it, but whose experiences at the hand of his unstable mother showed him that love wasn’t to be trusted and that he needed to wall off his emotions to prevent greater hurt. He’s gone through some dark times, yet hasn’t been able to truly squash the part of him that wants to love and be loved. He does perhaps fall for his new wife rather quickly, but on the other hand, I liked that he doesn’t spend too much time agonising over the fact that he’s going against everything he’d told himself he wanted, and that he is quick to see that he was wrong and to start to embrace his new life.
But as this all happens in the first half to two-thirds of the book, there must obviously be more to the story. Without giving away too much, someone is out to harm Nathan and things take a sudden and rather unexpected turn leading to his being declared dead. Sophia’s heartbreak at his loss is palpable, and her struggle to rebuild her life is thrown into further turmoil when she learns of a devastating betrayal that threatens to shatter her completely.
That’s all I’m going to say about that part of the plot, which is perhaps a little overblown but held my interest nonetheless. If you can get past that, and can accept the premise of the duke marrying the tavern-maid, then My Seductive Innocent is a well-written page-turner featuring an attractive central couple. The writing flows well, although there are some anachronistic turns of phrase and the usual smattering of Americanisms throughout. It’s the second book in a series, and although the principals from the previous book make an appearance, I don’t think it’s necessary to have read the first book in order for this one to make sense. I’m giving it a qualified recommendation because of the unlikely plot elements, but even so, it’s a very readable tale.