Lady Elisabeth Hamilton-Baythes has a painful secret. At fifteen, she was abducted by highwaymen and sold to a brothel. But two days later, she was rescued by a young lord, a man she’s never forgotten. Now, she’s devoted herself to save other innocents from a similar fate.
Bryson Courtland, Viscount Rainsleigh, never breaks the rules. Well, once, but that was a long time ago. He’s finally escaped his unhappy past to become one of the wealthiest noblemen in Britain. The last thing he needs to complete his ideal life? A perfectly proper wife.
When Bryson and Elisabeth meet, he sees only a flawless candidate for his future wife. But a distant memory calls to him every time he’s with her. Elisabeth knows she’s not the wife Bryson needs, and he is the only person who has the power to reveal her secret. But neither can resist the devastating pull of attraction, and as the truth comes to light, they must discover that an improper love is the truest of all.
The Virgin and the Viscount is the second book in the Bachelor Lords of London Series, and although I haven’t read the first book, this works perfectly well as a standalone. Ms Michaels is a new-to-me author and while the premise of this story – a man trying to rebuild his family’s shattered reputation falls for a woman who may tip the scales the wrong way – isn’t one I’m normally drawn to, this book turned out to be a lot better than I’d expected and I was fairly confident I’d be rating it highly. Or so I thought, until around the last twenty percent or so, when the story veered off in a different direction, as though the author suddenly realised she had another story to tell about these characters and had to squash it in before the end.
Fifteen years earlier, the coach carrying Lady Elisabeth Hamilton-Baythes and her parents home from an engagement was set upon by highwaymen. Her parents were shot and killed and Lady Elisabeth was taken away and sold to a brothel, where her youth (she was just fifteen) and virginity would fetch a high price. Just a few hours after her arrival she was paraded before a group of men who said they would return for her and who, the following night did just that. Although earmarked for the bed of the notorious libertine, Viscount Rainsleigh, one of the girls saved Elisabeth by switching places with her and sending her instead to the room of the viscount’s nineteen year-old son.
Having been drugged by his father and cousin, who think the entire thing a great joke, but with absolutely no desire to spend an evening at a brothel, the young man helps Elisabeth to escape and to find her way to her aunt’s Mayfair home. Lady Elisabeth has lived there ever since, but she has never forgotten her ordeal, or the dashing young man who rescued her. Determined to help other women who have fallen or been forced into prostitution, she sets up and runs a charitable foundation which finds such girls, takes them in, educates them and eventually finds them respectable employment. As for the young man… well she has discovered from the newspapers that he has now become Viscount Rainsleigh and that he has worked incredibly hard to make something of himself and to do his utmost to erase society’s memories of the myriad indiscretions and the depravity regularly practiced by both his parents.
Bryson Courtland has most certainly made something of himself. Over the past fifteen years, he has earned himself a fortune from his numerous and varied business interests, and has lived his life as differently from his parents as he possibly could. He is a model of propriety, a young gentleman who indulges in none of the vices so loved by other men of his station – including his rogue of a younger brother – and who is keen to return to society and to walk through the many doors which his parents’ reputations ensured have been closed to him for many years. At thirty-four, he knows it is time for him to find a wife and sire an heir, so he initially tasks his secretary with finding him a list of suitable candidates from among the marriageable young ladies of the ton. Rainsleigh thinks it would probably be for the best were his wife not to inspire passion in him – he doesn’t want to find himself “consumed” by the same strong emotions that were the cause of his parents’ licentious ways.
But on the very same evening he doles out this assignment, he encounters a woman who meets his requirements. Lady Elisabeth Hamilton-Baythes is no empty-headed schoolroom miss, but a woman of maturity and intelligence, a beautiful woman, it is true, and one with whom Rainsleigh feels an immediate sense of connection. He decides she is the woman for him and sets out immediately to win her.
The thing that sets this story apart from others that I’ve read with a similar premise is the honesty with which the two protagonists treat each other. That sounds strange, I know, given that Elisabeth is keeping a big secret, but it’s one she knows she must reveal and is prepared to do so, even though it may cost her dearly. And her reasons for keeping it are understandable; she is falling in love with a decent, kind and honourable man and doesn’t want to lose him. In every other part of her life, she is transparent, and Rainsleigh is similarly up-front with her. He tells her the truth about his upbringing, the neglect and abuse he suffered at the hands of his parents and makes no bones about the fact that: “After a lifetime of disgrace, debauchery and lies, I want faithfulness, purity and honesty.” The openness between them is quite refreshing and their interactions are laced with tenderness and humour.
Something else I particularly appreciated was Rainsleigh’s genuine contrition when he realises that he has treated Elisabeth very badly indeed following his discovery of the truth. Assailed by emotions he never expected or wanted, he doesn’t quite know what to do and while he does put his foot in it it several times, there is never any question that he’s a good man trying to find his way. Elisabeth struggles with marriage to a man who wants to compartmentalise and order their lives to a ridiculous extent; and I reached the last quarter of the book eager to find out how they would reconcile their different ideas about what they wanted from their relationship and regain the honesty and openness that I’d enjoyed so much earlier in the story.
And that brings me to the “veering off” I mentioned at the beginning of this review. It’s difficult to discuss without spoilers, but Rainsleigh is suddenly confronted with information about his past that has a profound effect on his view of himself, his relationship with Elisabeth and his position in society. My biggest issue with this is that it seems to be based on an inaccurate assumption or a misconception of the law of the time, and as a result, I was completely taken out of the story. But even without that, Rainsleigh and Elisabeth had enough problems to contend with in their fledgling marriage and didn’t need any complications from an external source. While I was glad to see the couple get their HEA by the end, it rankles that they were driven there by external factors rather than by discussions about what they wanted and expected from each other.
Had The Virgin and the Viscount continued as it began, I’d probably have given it a B+, perhaps even an A-. The writing is strong, the author can obviously create engaging and sympathetic central characters, and she can tell a good story. There are a few minor historical inaccuracies – like the fact that Elisabeth wears her hair down in public on several occasions, which was a big no-no at the time – but that final, unnecessary plot twist is something I can’t ignore. Even though that section has a couple of lovely moments, I can’t help feeling that I was cheated out of what should have been a return to honesty and mutual understanding motivated by the characters’ love for each other and not by a sudden adverse turn of fate.
Grading the book has proved difficult, but I’m going for a B overall. The first eighty percent deserves a higher grade than that, but the last part was disappointing so I can’t grade more highly. Anyone looking for a new author to try might consider The Virgin and the Viscount because the good is very good; and even taking my reservations into account, Ms Michaels is going on my list of authors to watch.