When Lady Esme Byron happens upon a gorgeous naked man sleeping beside a secluded country lake, she can’t resist the impulse to sketch him. But when her highly improper drawing is mistakenly revealed at a party, she finds her once-pristine reputation in tatters.
Gabriel, Lord Northcote, may be a notorious rakehell, but he is still stunned to find himself accused of despoiling a duke’s sister—especially since he’s never set eyes on her. When Esme’s six irate brothers demand a hurried trip down the aisle, he has no choice but to comply. He thinks he can forget about his inconvenient bride but Esme Byron is no ordinary woman and Gabriel is about to learn just how unforgettable she can be.
I’ve been eagerly awaiting Happily Bedded Bliss since I read the first book in Tracy Anne Warren’s Rakes of Cavendish Square series (The Bedding Proposal) last year. That book was a compelling read that was quite dark in places, given the treatment doled out to the divorced heroine, both by her ex-husband and society at large, so I was hoping for something equally gripping in this second novel. Probably because of those expectations, I came away from this book rather disappointed – but that doesn’t mean there’s anything badly wrong with the story or characters; just that it lacks the emotional impact of the previous one.
On the upside, however, the story does use what is probably my favourite trope in the genre, that of a couple who is forced to marry for appearances’ sake, and who we then see adjusting to life together and eventually falling in love. Lady Esme Byron is one of the two remaining unwed Byron siblings, and while not against the idea of marriage in general – her brothers and sister are all blissfully happy – isn’t in a hurry, despite the fact that she’s already twenty and many other young ladies of her age are already settled with husbands and children. But she enjoys her life of relative freedom, surrounded by her menagerie of cats, dogs, a wounded hawk and the various other small animals she takes care of, and indulging her talent for drawing and painting.
Unfortunately, however, that talent proves her undoing when, on one of her long rambles, she strays onto the adjoining property and spies an incredibly handsome man emerging from a swim in the lake. Her artist’s eye is caught; and when he stretches out on the grass and falls asleep – completely naked – she can’t resist the impulse to draw him. Well aware that what she’s doing is scandalous, Esme also knows she is unlikely to ever again have such an opportunity to draw from life. She will just have to make sure that she keeps her sketch securely hidden away. But of course, things like this never go according to plan and a mistake means Esme’s drawing is seen by her entire family and their guests. After that, there is only one way to prevent a massive scandal and protect her reputation.
When he left London in order to rusticate in the peace and quiet of a friend’s country estate, Gabriel Lansdowne, Lord Northcote, hadn’t the least idea of becoming involved with any young woman, let alone ending up having to marry one. When suddenly confronted one evening by several large, angry men – including his London neighbours, Lords Leo and Lawrence Byron – he is at a loss to understand why they are so furious with him. His reputation is terrible, of course, but all the Byron men were just as bad before settling down, and he sure as hell hasn’t seduced or even met their sisters, so being accused of debauching one of them is a complete shock. A rakehell he may be, but a gentleman’s word counts for something and the Byrons accept Gabriel’s explanation that he has never met Esme; but even so, her reputation will be in tatters when word gets out about the sketch, and there’s no alternative but for him to marry her without delay.
The set-up happens quickly, leaving the author plenty of time to develop the relationship between Esme and Gabriel, which she does very well. The pair are most definitely attracted to each other from the outset, and when Esme turns out to be intelligent and quick-witted as well as beautiful, Gabriel thinks he might not have made such a bad bargain after all. Esme had worried that a husband would want to curb her personal freedom and what society has termed her “eccentricities”; her work with animals and her painting, but Gabriel shows no signs of wanting to do that. Instead he encourages and supports her; even when she reveals that she doesn’t eat meat (very unusual for the time), he doesn’t turn a hair and makes sure that their household staff is aware of her preferences. They’re compatible sexually, they enjoy each other’s company and they like each other – but Esme has always been aware that there is something about her new husband that he isn’t willing to share with her, a jaded cynicism which seems to be almost waiting for her to find him unworthy and reject him.
Gabriel is one in a long line of historical heroes who have forsworn love because of the circumstances of his past; in his case being brought up by an unfeeling relative whose casual cruelty very quickly taught the younger Gabriel that loving things was dangerous as it hurt when they were taken away. An unfortunate youthful love-affair only served to reinforce that belief, and he has disavowed love’s very existence ever since. While his actions and motivations may be somewhat stereotypical, Esme’s are less so and are among the things that lift the book out of the “average” category. She is a loving, giving person and refuses to give up on Gabriel, regardless of his sudden coldness towards her. I liked the way she gradually works her way under his skin and into his heart, and that she refuses to allow him to wallow or give up on their marriage because of his fears and insecurities.
Although I said at the outset that I was a little disappointed with Happily Bedded Bliss, I did enjoy it once I’d adjusted my expectations and would definitely recommend it if you’re looking for a gently romantic and sensual love story. The central relationship is charmingly written and the two principals are attractive, well-rounded characters who are well-matched and whose happiness beyond the HEA is something I could easily believe in.