Young widow Roxanna Drew was fair game in the sport of cads. Her suddenly impoverished state made her as vulnerable as her beauty made her tempting to men with more money than morals. Lord Marshall Whitcomb, who held her purse strings in his pawing hands, was intent on luring her into his bed. But even more dangerous was Lord Winn, who owned the dwelling where she sought refuge. The dashing lord reminded the widow that the lure of sharing a warm bed on a winter’s night might indeed be worth the risks.
Lord Winn had trusted one woman and been betrayed. That disastrous marriage had endowed him with a wariness of females in general, and prospective wives in particular. But when the door to the dower house on one of his estates was opened by a woman with a cautious smile and memorable brown eyes, he knew here was danger to avoid at all costs — if he really wanted to…
July’s prompt was to read a book that had either won or been nominated for a RITA award; Mrs Drew Plays Her Hand won the award for Best Regency Romance back in 1995.
As she does in so many of her books, Carla Kelly imbues a serious story with humour, warmth and tenderness, and writes a pair of engaging central characters whose flaws only make them seem that much more human.
Roxana Drew was happily married for a number of years, bearing her husband – a clergyman – two daughters before he became seriously ill. For the last few years of his life, he was a bedridden invalid, and Roxana nursed him cheerfully and tirelessly. Six months after his death, she receives a very unwelcome and unpleasant proposition from his older brother, Lord Whitcomb. He must appoint another to the living which means that Roxana and her daughters – Helen and Felicity – will have to find another home. He suggests that they all move into his house, and that in return for providing shelter, Roxana should become his mistress, seeing as his own wife has absolutely no interest in the physical side of marriage and is unlikely to give him any children.
Roxana is naturally stunned and horrified by this suggestion, and realises that she must make alternative arrangements and make them quickly. When she is on one of her many long countryside walks, she comes across the uninhabited and somewhat dilapidated dower house on the neighbouring Moreland estate. She suggests to the bailiff that she could rent the property and help to renovate it – and he agrees. When Whitcomb finds out, he is livid, but with the help of the bailiff and a few of the estate workers, Roxana and her daughters very quickly move to their new home.
The owner of the estate – and the house – is Fletcher Rand, Marquess of Winn, a former officer who has spent little time in England of late and who rarely visits his various holdings. Winn was married to a beautiful woman who cuckolded him repeatedly – and so he divorced her. Divorce at this time was incredibly difficult and scandalous, but even though Winn was the injured party, he is still persona non grata as far as society is concerned. That doesn’t particularly worry him, although it does mean that marrying again – should he want to – will be very difficult, as most of the suitable young ladies avoid him because of his tarnished reputation. That suits him, however, given his previous experience of matrimony, although his sisters are continually nagging at him to remarry and provide an heir.
As one way of avoiding his sisters’ company, Winn decides it’s time for him to make the rounds of his various estates, and it’s on one such trip that he encounters Roxana and her daughters. Stunned to find the vicar’s widow is a lovely young woman, he soon finds himself falling for her. He has intended to stay in Yorkshire for only a short time, but he so greatly enjoys spending time with Roxana and her family that he can’t bear to tear himself away.
When, just before Christmas, Whitcomb threatens to remove the girls from Roxana’s care, she is distraught, but Winn comes to her aid once again with a rather outrageous suggestion. If they marry, he will be legally responsible for the girls and her brother-in-law won’t be able to touch them. Roxana quickly sees this is the only way to secure their futures, and agrees to a marriage of convenience. She finds Winn very attractive, but he has given no sign that he feels anything for her other than friendship, and in spite of the relationship that has developed between him and the girls, he is adamant that he doesn’t like children or want any of his own and makes it clear that he does not intend to “bother” his wife by actually living in the same house with her for more than a few weeks a year.
This part of the story is rather frustrating, because Winn is so very cautious about showing Roxana how he feels that she has absolutely no idea that he’s fallen in love with her. She takes him at his word as not wanting another wife because of the way his ex-wife treated him, so she is very careful not to overstep the boundaries of their convenient marriage – which in turn signals to Winn that she’s not attracted to him, when in fact, she loves and wants him desperately.
Otherwise, Winn is an engaging, endearing hero who is kind, generous and possessed of the sort of competence and self-assurance that is incredibly attractive. In spite of his assertions that he dislikes children, he is immediately captivated by Helen and Felicity, and I loved the way Ms Kelly shows us, through their interactions, how much Winn actually longs to be part of a loving family, and what a great father he could be. Roxana is strong and pragmatic, but sometimes wishes she had someone with whom to share her burdens. She misses the companionship she had enjoyed with her husband, and misses the physical side of marriage, something about which she feels more than a little ashamed, because of course, “proper” ladies didn’t enjoy sex or think about anything below the waist!
The conflict towards the end of the story, which is exacerbated by both protagonists’ particular negative traits; her tendency to procrastinate and his fear of rejection – is somewhat frustrating, as is the rather improbable volte-face by Lord Whitcomb, who hangs his head in shame and is then forgiven for his earlier nastiness.
Overall, however, the book is very well-written, the principals are likeable, well-drawn characters and their romance is sweet and develops at a sensible pace. The dialogue has a naturalistic feel to it that makes it easy to believe in the strength of the emotional connection between the two leads, and the characterisation is strong all round. I’m not a big fan of children in romance novels, but Ms Kelly brings truth and warmth to her depiction of Helen and Felicity which isn’t something every author can do.
In spite of my reservations Mrs Drew Plays Her Hand is a really lovely story and one I enjoyed very much.