Eleanor Hawke loves a good scandal. And readers of her successful gossip rag live for the exploits of her favorite subject: Daniel Balfour, the notorious Earl of Ashford. So when the earl himself marches into her office one day and invites her to experience his illicit pursuits firsthand, Eleanor is stunned. Gambling hells, phaeton races, masquerades…What more could a scandal writer want than a secret look into the life of this devilishly handsome rake?
Daniel has secrets and if The Hawk’s Eye gets wind of them, a man’s life could be at stake. And what better way to distract a gossip than by feeding her the scandal she desperately craves? But Daniel never expected the sharp mind and biting wit of the beautiful writer, and their desire for each other threatens even his best laid plans.
But when Eleanor learns the truth of his deception, Daniel will do anything to prove a romance between a commoner and an earl could really last forever.
When it was announced at last year’s RWA that Zoe Archer was going to be turning her hand to writing Regency romances under the pseudonym of Eva Leigh, I was undoubtedly one of many immediately asking “when? WHEN?!” (and “who do I have to kill to get a copy?”) I have enjoyed other books of hers, most notably her Victorian-set Nemesis Unlimited series, which featured tightly-plotted, action-packed storylines, strong, independently-minded heroines, wickedly sexy heroes and great dialogue. I started reading Forever Your Earl hoping for more of the same – and wasn’t disappointed.
Eleanor Hawke, editor and proprietor of The Hawk’s Eye, a modestly successful periodical devoted to exposing the foibles of the rich and infamous, is surprised when completely out of the blue, one of her most recent targets, the rakish – and, she has to admit, gorgeous – Earl of Ashford storms into her office. He angrily insists that she stop printing lies about him, even going so far as to suggest that her readers might like to read actual news rather than “spurious gossip about a figure as inconsequential as myself.”
But Daniel Balfour has more at stake than simply putting a stop to gossip. For weeks, he has been trying to discover the whereabouts of his oldest friend, Jonathan Lawson, who disappeared into London’s underbelly before learning that the death of his brother had elevated him to a dukedom. Lawson, unlike Daniel, had been able to serve in the army during the recent war, but returned from it a changed man. All Daniel has to go on is that shortly before his disappearance, Jonathan had been seen in the worst sort of company in the less salubrious areas of London – and knows that should news of it ever leak out, it will ruin him, his family and his sister’s chance of making a good marriage. As Jonathan’s closest friend, Daniel can’t allow that to happen and besides, he feels partially responsible for the situation, having noticed something wasn’t right with his friend and not having taken any steps to help him.
Realising that having his every move scrutinised so closely could jepoardise his search and increase the risk to the Lawson family, Daniel decides to turn the gaze of The Hawk’s Eye elsewhere, by offering to open up his life to public scrutiny within its pages. He offers Eleanor the chance to write the truth about him; where he goes, what he does and who he sees, the life of one of the ton’s most infamous rakes setout in black and while for all the world to see.
While not wanting to look a gift horse in the mouth, Eleanor knows there is more to Ashford’s offer than meets the eye. Reasoning that as long as they’re using each other, she decides she might as well take him up on it, even as she stamps down on the thought that her motives for getting close to the earl might not all be to do with her wish to increase sales.
There’s a lot going on in this book beneath the surface action of Eleanor accompanying Daniel on various escapades, and his search for his friend. The couple has terrific chemistry, and the romance between them is witty, intense, highly sensual and, at times, heartbreaking. The characterisation of the leads is excellent, both of them strong, determined people who are nonetheless missing a subtle something that the other is able to supply. Eleanor has made her way in a man’s world and is intelligent and shrewd without being shrewish or mannish. She likes men – she’s had lovers – but ultimately, the paper she built from nothing is her true passion. Daniel, while rich, handsome and titled, feels guilty and inadequate because he didn’t reach out to his friend when he most needed him, and is at a crossroads in his life, no longer wanting the life of a useless fribble, but unsure of what he can contribute. In Daniel, Eleanor finds someone who really listens to her and takes her seriously, and in her, he finds someone who breaks through his cultivated cynical detachment and sees him for who he really is.
As is so often the case with heroes who are described as rakes or rogues, Daniel really is neither – or not that we see within the confines of the story. What we do see is an honourable, clever, well-read and witty man who is prepared to put his money where his mouth is when it comes to the woman he loves, in spite of the huge social gulf between them.
This is another thing that is well-handled within the story; cross-class historical romances are difficult to pull off because of the social rigidity of the time, but the author doesn’t ignore the problems and has both protagonists well-aware of them from the outset. Yet the more time they spend together, the more it becomes apparent to them both that they are much more than ships who pass in the night – but it’s going to take a lot of courage on both sides if they are to thumb their noses at society and follow their hearts.
Ms Leigh also has a lot to say about the inequality of the sexes; in fact, the copy I have on my Kindle is full of highlights such as this, from a scene early on in which Eleanor is disgused as a man prior to their visit to a select gaming hell:
“It’s the diametric opposite to the way women are taught to walk. We’re told to take up as little space as possible. Not attract attention to ourselves. Not claim anything as our own.”
He started. None of this had ever occurred to him. He’s always suspected that women walked differently from men because of biology, but never from truly learned behaviour, lessons that included how females were perceived or thought of themselves in the world.
“But you,” she continued. “It’s like everything is yours. You can claim it all and no one will gainsay you…”
His laugh was short and strained. Here he’d taken her into this alley to give her some simple instruction on the way to walk like a man, and suddenly he’d been given an entirely new insight into what it meant to BE a man. What it meant to be a woman.
The other many highlights are of the wonderful banter between the pair. The dialogue in this book really is to die for; it’s sharp, witty, innuendo-laden—and often downright hilarious, such as the moment when, upon entering the gambling hell, Eleanor declares it to be “Debrett’s gone feral.”
I only have one real complaint about the book, which is that while I enjoyed it enormously, I never got a Regency “vibe” from it. Ms Leigh makes all the right references to styles of dress, events and social customs, but in my head, the books is set several decades after 1816. I can understand that perhaps the choice of time period was deliberately made in order to distance the author’s Eva Leigh persona from her Zoe Archer one, but the book just doesn’t scream “Regency” to me. Daniel’s reference to an omnibus is another thing that made me question the setting, because I don’t believe these appeared in the UK until the 1820s.
Those things apart, though, Forever Your Earl is a terrific story and one I have no qualms about recommending most heartily. The reservations I’ve expressed in no way affected my enjoyment and the book is most definitely going on to my keeper shelf.