Major Elijah Hollister never wanted to be an earl, particularly not when it meant losing his brother. When a bold adventuress shows up at his door seeking a treasure map, Elijah suspects his brother’s death may not have been accidental and that the lady knows more than she’s willing to share. Whether she’s a friend or foe, Elijah plans to keep her close—and hope the temptation of her kisses doesn’t ruin them both.
Miss Catriona Bowen can almost taste the fruits of her years-long quest to find one of Britain’s greatest treasures. The discovery will deliver the recognition and respect she deserves as an antiquary, despite the fact that she’s a woman. However, to find the map that will lead her to success, she must ally herself with a stoic, yet provocative gentleman with a different goal. And when a villain threatens their lives, she realizes too late that love is the greatest treasure of all.
Romancing the Earl is the second book in Ms Burke’s Regency Treasure Hunters series, which began with The De Valery Code. That story is set some twenty-two years earlier and tells the story of Rhys and Margery Bowen, whose daughter, Cate, is the heroine of this book. While there are a couple of references to some of the elements of the storyline in book one which are carried over, Romancing the Earl works well as a standalone, with a nicely built romance and an intriguing adventure plot.
Major Elijah Hollister has recently returned to England from Australia, where he was stationed for a number of years. His return was occasioned by the recent and unexpected death of his brother Matthew, the Earl of Norris, which has left Elijah both bereft and in possession of an earldom he doesn’t want.
Completely out of the blue, he receives a visit from a lovely young woman who introduces herself as Catriona Bowen. She loses no time in informing him that she wishes to purchase a medieval tapestry she believes is part of the collection of antiquities Elijah has inherited from the distant cousin who was the holder of the title before Matthew. When she goes on to explain that the tapestry may well contain a clue as to the location of a priceless Arthurian artefact known as the Sword of Dyrnwyn, Elijah is suspicious of her true intent – and when, during the course of their conversation, Catriona explains that she is not the only person interested in the tapestry and the information it may contain, Elijah comes to the realisation that perhaps his brother’s death was no accident.
While he has no real interest in the tapestry other than as it relates to his brother’s death, Elijah is determined to investigate and find out the truth. He and Catriona form an uneasy alliance; if Matthew was murdered by whoever was after the tapestry, then helping to recover it may provide clues as to the identity of his brother’s killers.
What follows is a road-trip story during which the Earl and Catriona – accompanied by their respective servants, Wade and Grey – travel from his Wiltshire home to Harlech in Wales, finding clues and confronting the dangerous gang who are also in pursuit of the treasure.
While the story is perhaps a little slow to start, spending time as it does introducing the reader to the various players in the story and explaining the legends behind the Arthurian treasures of which the Sword of Dyrnwyn is one – once the journey really gets underway, the pacing picks up, and I found myself much more drawn in.
The two principals are attractive, engaging characters whose past experiences (him) and unconventional lifestyle (her) have decided both of them against long-term entanglements, but who are nonetheless unable to ignore the growing attraction between them. The romantic and sexual tension between them is built up very well, and even though Cate’s attitude towards sex is rather too modern for the time, I nonetheless enjoyed how her forwardness was contrasted with Elijah’s insistence on propriety and the way she could throw him completely off balance with a veiled suggestion or look.
In fact, Cate is a very forward-thinking young woman who wants nothing more than to be taken seriously as an academic in a time when women weren’t supposed to have brains or to be able to think for themselves. I did find it a little hard to believe that her parents would have allowed her to gallivant about the country with only her companion in tow; regardless of their confidence in Cate’s common sense and her resourcefulness, the middle of nowhere in the English countryside could be a very dangerous place to be.
Elijah is slightly less well defined, although Ms Burke adds some lovely little touches to his backstory which help to flesh him out. He’s charming, dependable and possesses the kind of quiet competence that is very attractive, as well as being the sort of hero who may be a bit uptight on the surface but is a bit of a devil between the sheets ;-). I was, however, rather surprised by his actions towards the end of the story, when the conclusions he reaches about his brother’s death cause him to act in a way that’s completely out of character.
There are a few inconsistencies in the story (like the fact that Bradford is nowhere near Bath; the author obviously means Bradford-upon-Avon, but this British reader had to think about it, because to us, Bradford is “up north”) and the reasons behind Elijah’s poor relationship with his mother are never fully explored or given closure. Cate’s stated determination never to disgrace her family name is somewhat at odds with the way she travels around independently all the time. And personally, I have a problem with the concept that King Arthur actually existed. The treasures which are being sought during this series are all reputed to be artefacts that were owned by Arthur and his knights, thus proving the legendary king’s existence. I know this is fiction, but that requires me to stretch my credulity just a bit too far.
Apart from those things, though Romancing the Earl is a well-written, enjoyable romp, featuring a couple of likeable protagonists, a sensual romance and a nicely-crafted adventure plot. Ms Burke has set things up well for the next couple of books in the series, and I’m sure I’ll be checking them out.