When Edwin Barlow, the Earl of Blakeborough, agrees to help his best friend’s impetuous ward, Lady Clarissa Lindsey, in her time of need, he knows he’s in for trouble. He’s been hunting for someone to wed, and she’ll just get in the way. Although captivated by the whip-smart, free-spirited beauty, he fears she’d be all wrong as a wife … if she would even take such a gruff cynic for her husband. Too bad he wants nothing more than to have her for his own.
Clarissa has no intention of marrying anyone—not Edwin, whom she’s sure would be an overbearing husband, and certainly not the powerful French diplomat stalking her. But when matters escalate with the diplomat, she chooses Edwin’s gallant offer of a marriage between friends in hopes that it will deter her stalker. She expects nothing more than an amiable union, but their increasingly tempestuous kisses prove more than she bargained for. When her stalker’s vow to expose the lovers’ deepest secrets threatens to destroy their blossoming attraction, will their tenuous bond withstand public ruin, or will Edwin lose all that’s important to him to protect his bride?
This second book in Sabrina Jeffries’ current Sinful Suitors series picks up the story of Edwin Barlow, Lord Blakeborough, who appeared as a secondary character in her earlier Duke’s Men books. Although he came across as somewhat staid, Edwin is a kind, decent and honourable man, and, mindful of the fact that it’s time for him to do his duty to his family and his title, is looking about him for a wife. The future Lady Blakeborough will ideally be a quiet, sensible young woman who will peacefully and contentedly grace his home and table, warm his bed and bear his children.
His estate adjoins that of his closest friend, Warren, the Marquess of Knightford. Edwin, Warren and Warren’s cousin, Lady Clarissa Lindsey, more or less grew up together, and Edwin and Clarissa have always had a tendency to rub each other up the wrong way. Clarissa is very lovely but is otherwise everything Edwin tries to tell himself he doesn’t really appreciate in a woman; she’s flighty, lively and opinionated and takes delight in needling him, mocking his steadiness and his unsociability while she cuts a dash through society, a coterie of adoring swains in her thrall. An inveterate flirt, she keeps them dangling after her even though she has not the slightest interest in marrying any of them.
When Warren receives bad news about Clarissa’s brother Niall – who had to flee the country seven years ago following a duel in which he killed his opponent – he wants to leave immediately to see what can be done to help. But he is worried about Clarissa, who is being relentlessly pursued by a young French diplomat, and he doesn’t want to leave her without protection. To that end, he asks Edwin to stand in his stead and squire her around in his absence.
Neither Edwin nor Clarissa is particularly pleased at the arrangement, but they agree to it in order to put Warren’s mind at rest, and soon find themselves actually enjoying each other’s company while their mutual but unacknowledged attraction deepens. But the reappearance of Count Durand, whose desire for Clarissa borders on obsession, forces them into a faux-engagement in an attempt to get him to leave Clarissa alone – and when the Frenchman resorts to blackmail in order to force Edwin to abandon her to his blandishments, Edwin can see only one way to keep Clarissa safe. He must marry her himself, and quickly.
Such a plotline – long-standing-friends-who-are-secretly-crushing-on-each-other AND a forced marriage – is like catnip to yours truly, and both tropes work really well here. It was clear in the previous book (The Art of Sinning) that there was something bubbling just under the surface between Edwin and Clarissa, although Edwin was rather sweetly clueless about it; and Ms Jeffries builds skilfully on that, bringing both characters gradually to acknowledge the depth of the attraction between them but determined to keep it hidden for fear of rejection. And on Clarissa’s part, it’s quickly obvious that there is more to it than that. It’s fairly easy to guess what must have happened to her to have made her so wary of intimacy, and although there were times I really wanted to yell at her to just TALK to Edwin, I could understand her reluctance to do so. Ms Jeffries handles the subject of Clarissa’s experience sensitively, and in a way which feels fairly realistic; it’s always difficult to judge such things in books, as I’m not an expert and no one person will react in the same way, but I give the author credit for having done her homework so that Clarissa’s thoughts and fears (that what happened was all her fault) carry an appropriately strong resonance for the modern reader.
But it’s Edwin who is the star of the show. Handsome, honourable and endearingly geeky, he’s honest to the point of bluntness, finds it difficult to make small-talk, doesn’t suffer fools and isn’t particularly comfortable in social situations. Yet he’s a wonderfully sexy beta-hero and easily my favourite of all the heroes of Ms Jeffries’ I’ve encountered so far. The back-and-forth between him and Clarissa is well-written and often amusing, revealing Edwin to have a clever, dry sense of humour and to be much more sharply observant than many would believe. He’s intuitive and compassionate, but his parents’ disastrous marriage has led him to believe that romantic love is not something he really wants to experience. He cares very much for his family and friends, but his wariness of strong emotional attachments has led him to play up his gruff, serious manner as a way of keeping people at arm’s length. Yet Clarissa has been under his skin for longer than he has admitted to himself, and when he falls, he falls hard. I always love to see the grumpy hero falling head-over-heels, but what puts Edwin head-and-shoulders above so many other romantic heroes is the understanding and patience he shows Clarissa when he finds out what is causing her to hold herself back from him, and even more than that, the way in which he helps her to understand that it wasn’t her fault.
But fond as I am of Edwin, I can’t deny there are a couple of bumps in the story that brought my final grade down a little. I didn’t like the fact that he deliberately decided to keep some important information from Clarissa when he married her and effectively took away her ability to choose, even though his principal motive was to ensure her safety. And the villain of the piece only needs a cape to swirl, a moustache to twirl and an evil laugh to put him into the pages of “Evil for Dummies”.
In spite of those criticisms – which didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the book at all – The Study of Seduction is a thoroughly engaging read. The air between Edwin and Clarissa crackles whenever they’re on the page together and the chemistry between them makes for some nicely sensual love scenes. It’s not absolutely necessary to have read the previous book or series in order to enjoy this, although reading If the Viscount Falls and The Art of Sinning might be necessary after you’ve fallen in love with Edwin and want to meet him again.