After a lifetime of rakish behavior, Lord Maxfeld must pretend he’s reformed and find a fake wife. And there is nobody more suitable than Lady Phoebe. Trouble is, Phoebe will not agree to a false engagement and leaves Max no option but to blackmail her into agreeing to his scheme.
Phoebe will go to great lengths to avoid anything remotely dishonourable and blackmails Max right back—directly to the altar. Once married, though, Phoebe wants more than just Max’s ring – she wants his heart, something he can never give….
Ingrid Hahn is a new-to-me author, and because I like to try new writers and the premise of To Covet a Lady’s Heart sounded intriguing – with the hero attempting to blackmail the heroine and her blackmailing him right back – I decided to give it a whirl. The book proved to be a bit of a mixed bag overall; there are parts of the story, especially in the early stages, that are quite entertaining and made me want to keep reading, but as things progressed, I started to find that the heroine I’d initially found rather refreshing was ridiculously perfect, the darkly brooding hero had no real basis for his darkly brooding-ness and the romance, which had started so promisingly, was fizzling out so that by the end of the book, I really didn’t care all that much as to whether or not they’d get their HEA.
George Fitzhugh, the Earl of Maxfeld (Max) has a reputation for debauchery of the worst kind. He prefers to spend his time with the demimondaine instead of the high society to which he rightly belongs, but as he has no intention of ever taking a wife, he sees no point in presenting himself as a prospect to the young ladies of the ton by attending society events. But it seems he’s going to have to make a change because he desperately wants to assume the guardianship of his five-year-old nephew, Thomas; and his mother, with whom the boy is currently living, won’t hear of it. The death of her daughter – Max’s sister – more than a year ago affected his mother badly and Max is worried, not only for her health, but for her ability to properly care for a rambunctious five-year-old. But Lady Maxfeld is adamant; Max is not a fitting role model for a young boy, no matter that Max loves him dearly and would do anything for him.
Things might be different if Max were married or if there were the slightest possibility of his being so – which is when he hatches a plan. If he can present his mother with a fiancée and show her he is going to reform his ways and settle down, then she can have no reason to continue to refuse to allow him to assume custody of Thomas. And fortunately for him, Max has just the woman in mind for his scheme.
Lady Phoebe Landon, youngest of the four Landon sisters, is wary of gossip and scandal especially given that her family name is a byword for both owing to the fact that her father’s gambling habit left her, her mother and her sisters penniless at his death. The marriage of her eldest sister to a wealthy peer has most definitely improved Phoebe’s situation, but she is fully conscious of her need to be whiter-than-white in order to ensure her continued acceptance in society.
When the rakishly handsome Earl of Maxfeld approaches her with a proposition – he won’t reveal something scandalous he has learned about one of her other sisters if she will pretend to be betrothed to him for a few weeks – Phoebe is horrified and refuses. Yet when Max talks to her about his nephew and how he wants to give Thomas the sort of childhood that he never had, Phoebe finds her conviction wavering, and, against her better judgement, agrees to help him.
I normally like the fake-couple trope, but in order for it to be successful there needs to be a high level of sexual tension between the couple in question, and that’s in very short supply here. We’re told at various points that Max and Phoebe are reassessing their opinions of each other and that there’s a strong mutual attraction between them; but what I read was mostly Max being all closed-off and refusing to talk about his past and Phoebe making a lot of very sensible pronouncements about relationships and emotions. I couldn’t help but wonder how she had come to know and understand Max so well in so short a time; she seemed to have an answer for everything which gets annoying quite quickly.
Max’s secret – such as it is – is revealed early on so it’s not a spoiler to say that his reason for not wanting to marry is because his father was mad and he is scared he’s going to go the same way. He has managed to cultivate a reputation for being a rake, in spite of the fact that he is technically still a virgin (no actual nookie, but lots of ‘everything but’!). He doesn’t have sex because he doesn’t want to risk passing on his mad genes – and I really couldn’t believe he’d managed to keep that quiet for his entire adult life. That’s just one of the inconsistencies that mars the story; another is that although Max wants Phoebe to act as his fiancée for a few weeks, he doesn’t seem to have thought about what will happen to Thomas when Phoebe breaks the engagement. And then there’s the fact that Max is so sure he’s going to go mad – why? All the reader has to go on is his utter conviction that it will happen, but there is absolutely no evidence to support it.
I liked Phoebe’s character to start with; I liked that she could hold her own with Max, and that her conversation was intelligent, witty and lively. But then she gets incredibly pushy; Max has made it abundantly clear he doesn’t want to get married, but Phoebe won’t have it. She knows what’s best for him and he’s going to marry her regardless because what’s best for him is Phoebe. She pushes and pushes, and bombards him with anachronistic psychobabble:
“Whatever you do with your past is up to you. However you want to think about it, protect it, share it, understand it. You’re allowed to feel whatever you feel. I will never condemn you for any emotion you might have.”
No wonder the poor bloke’s worried about going insane!
The writing is fairly unsophisticated and is downright clumsy in places (“I’m well of age”) and there are several instances of grammatical errors and places where the author has used the wrong word – “It was one of the sacred tenants of his existence” – instead of tenets – and she constantly refers to “the marriage state” instead of the married state, to give just a few examples. However, I read an advance copy, so I hope these things might have been fixed prior to publication.
Ultimately, however, it’s the severe lack of chemisty between the leads, the superficiality of the characterisation and the many plot-holes that make To Covet a Lady’s Heart a book I can’t recommend. The first half is engaging and moves along at a good pace, but after that, things get bogged down in a cycle of Max agonises – Phoebe pontificates – Max closes off – and the ending is … well, I don’t know what it is, but it made very little sense to me.
Ms. Hahn has potential as an author of historical romance, but this book really needed a tighter hand, especially in the second half.