Gabriel Stone, Earl of Edenbridge, might have a rakish reputation, but he’s also a gentleman—of sorts. So when respectable Lady Caroline Holt offers her maidenhood in exchange for an estate her father gambled away, his curiosity is roused.
Gabriel is touched when he learns Caroline is helping her brother—he’s protected his brothers all his life…and has the scars to prove it. He’s willing to help her, but is shocked when his mission takes him somewhere he never thought he’d end up – down the aisle!
This is the fourth and final book in Louise Allen’s Lords of Disgrace series, in which the heroes regard themselves as brothers by blood and have always stood by each other through whatever adversity life threw at them. Gabriel Stone, the Earl of Edenbridge, has appeared in other books in the series as a somewhat enigmatic character, a man whose responses are guarded and who cares for little except gambling and other rakish pursuits.
When Gabriel receives an unanticipated caller on the morning after a profitable night’s gaming, he doesn’t expect to end the encounter in possession of an I.O.U for a young lady’s virginity. Lady Caroline Holt, daughter of Lord Knighton, begs him to exchange the deeds to the estate he has just won from her father for her virtue; after all, she’s going to have to get married to one of the stodgy, much older but wealthy gentlemen being lined up for her, so why shouldn’t she at least get to choose the man to whom she gives herself for the first time? She explains that Springbourne had been put aside for her sixteen year old brother, and that she will do anything to keep it safe for him. Gabriel appreciates Caroline’s sense of family loyalty, but he’s enough of a gentleman to be appalled that she should feel compelled to go to such lengths and to determine that he can’t possibly accept her bargain, no matter how attractive he finds her.
Gabriel lives a bit of a solitary existence, but that’s the way he likes it. His three brothers are settled – one in the army, one in the clergy and the youngest about to graduate from Oxford and become Gabriel’s estate manager – and while he has a certain brotherly affection for them, he doesn’t bother them, they don’t bother him and that suits him perfectly. To say that his is a tarnished reputation is an understatement; he’s a rake of the first order, a womaniser and a hardened gamester, but his title still guarantees him acceptance at all but the very highest levels of society.
Having reached an agreement with Caroline – so she thinks – that he will call in his I.O.U upon the announcement of her betrothal, Gabriel doesn’t expect to have anything more to do with her, until she approaches him again having realised that the returned estate needs to be managed until her brother comes of age. She has no-one to turn to; her father is a self-absorbed despot who sees her only as something he can use to his own advantage, and she daren’t let him know that she is now in possession of the estate he so thoughtlessly gambled away. Gabriel can’t help but feel somewhat outraged on Caroline’s behalf; that she should be so neglected that the only person she can ask for help is a virtual stranger with a severely blackened reputation doesn’t sit well with even his questionable sense of honour. Reluctantly, and against his own better judgement, he finds himself drawn to Caroline and interested in her fate. Her father plans to marry her off to the highest bidder – who is known to have perverted tastes when it comes to the bedroom – and isn’t above physically punishing his daughter when she tells him she won’t agree to the match. Hurting a woman is unconscionable in Gabriel’s book, and he hatches a plan to remain close enough to Caroline to be able to keep an eye on her and, if necessary, get her out of harm’s way.
There’s a lot to enjoy in the story, not least of which is the fact that Caroline is a pragmatic, intelligent woman with a good sense of humour who isn’t ashamed of her attraction to Gabriel. She wants to do the right thing by her brother and is prepared to make a devil’s bargain in order to do so, but quickly realises her naivété in attempting it and sees the holes in her plan. In spite of Gabriel’s poor reputation, she discovers him to have a strong sense of honour and a protective streak a mile wide when it comes to those he cares about, even though he, of course, would deny its existence.
I also liked that the book doesn’t quite fall into the “rake reformed by love” category. There’s no question that Gabriel is falling in love and that he is motivated to act on Caroline’s behalf, but even before he becomes involved in her life, he has realised that his existence as a devil-may-care rakehell is not really one he cares for any longer. The trouble is, he’s spent so long living it that he isn’t sure who he really is any more or how to go about building himself a different life. The guilt he lives with over a tragic past event made him put up a wall between himself and those he loved and made him push them away in his determination to protect them. Yet he clearly does care very deeply; he’s just learned not to show it, and it’s a hard habit to break.
Gabriel and Caroline make a terrific couple and Ms. Allen creates a strong sense of connection between them right from the start. Everything the reader comes to know about them is gleaned from their words, thoughts and actions; this is definitely not a book that suffers from telling rather than showing. I particularly enjoyed the way the layers of Gabriel’s personality are gradually peeled back to show the truth of the honourable, compassionate man he truly is.
The Unexpected Marriage of Gabriel Stone is the last – and my favourite – of this series, and can easily be read as a standalone, although the other books are definitely worth reading. It’s a great read and one I have no hesitation in recommending.