Does love really heal all wounds?
After being widowed by a steeplechase accident in Ireland, Lady Kate Whelan abandons the turf. But once her mourning is complete, her late husband’s debts drive her to seek help in Newmarket amidst the whirl of a race meet. There she encounters antiquities expert Evan Rhys, her late husband’s roguish friend―whom she hasn’t seen since the day of his lordship’s mysterious death.
Now that fate has reunited them, Evan seizes the chance to win over the woman he’s always loved. But once back within the old stone walls of Whelan House, long-held secrets come to light that shake up everything Kate thought she knew about her marriage. Now she wonders who she can trust with her heart―and Evan must decide between love and a truth that will separate him from all his heart desires.
This second full-length novel in Theresa Romain’s Romance of the Turf series takes up the story of Kate Durham née Chandler, the elder Chandler daughter, widow of the Earl of Whelan and mother of two young children. Scandalous Ever After is the sort of strongly written, character-driven and emotionally satisfying romance at which this author excels, and there’s a dash of mystery, too, which eventually turns out to be linked to one of the secondary plotlines featured in book one, A Gentleman’s Game.
When Kate was just seventeen, she was swept off her feet by the handsome Conall Durham, and after a whirlwind courtship, married him and left England to live at his estate in Ireland. Con’s best friend, Evan Rhys, a Welsh historian and archaeologist, was a frequent visitor, and the three of them spent many an evening together chatting, laughing and sampling the excellent local whiskey. Evan and Kate developed a strong and – they’d thought – lasting friendship, even though unbeknownst to Kate, Evan had fallen in love with her the moment they met. Over the years, Kate watched Con running up debts he couldn’t pay and put up with his infidelities – and while Evan remonstrated with his friend, Con continued on his own merry way until he was killed as the result of a fall from his horse. Shortly before this, the two men argued violently, after which Evan left and has never returned; he and Kate haven’t seen each other in the two years since Con’s death.
Kate hasn’t been home to Newmarket since she married, but she is back in England now, hoping to ask her father for help in settling the massive debt Connor left behind. While she’s there, she attends a lecture on antiquities – and specifically, the way in which the collectors’ market is currently being inundated with fakes – given by her old friend Evan Rhys. She has been hurt by his continued absence from her life and hopes they can regain something of their former friendship, unaware of the true nature of his feelings for her and that he harbours some guilt about the argument he and Con had on the day he died. Evan is surprised to see Kate, but can’t deny that he’s missed her – and decides to woo her now that she is free and out of mourning. But he knows it won’t be easy; over the years Kate has placed him in the role of “dependable friend” and he’ll have to take things slowly if he is to get her to see him as a lover.
Unfortunately for Kate, Sir William is unable to help her with her financial woes, so she decides to return to Ireland and Evan offers to escort her, telling her that he wants to look into the sudden flood of fake antiquities that appear to have been made from stone that comes from close to the Whelan estate. Once there, it becomes apparent that not only does Evan have cause for his suspicions but also that Con’s death was no accident – and that the machinations of the mysterious villain who cast a long shadow in the previous book continue to pursue the Chandler family, although to what end is not yet apparent.
Scandalous Ever After is a skilfully blended story of romance and mystery, with the focus very firmly on the fragile new relationship that Kate and Evan are building together. They have terrific chemistry and their many verbal exchanges are witty, funny and utterly delightful; such naturalistic dialogue is one of this author’s strengths, and it’s much in evidence here as Kate and Evan flirt, argue and tease their way towards a new understanding of themselves and each other. That’s not to say it’s an easy journey for either of them, especially after Kate takes a leap of faith and invites Evan to her bed – and almost immediately regrets her decision, because she is scared that by changing the nature of their relationship she will lose his friendship, and she couldn’t bear that. Over the years, she has become so many different women – wife, mother, countess, manager – that she has lost sight of herself and her own wants and needs. Spending time with her family – and with Evan’s on the way to Ireland (no matter that both families are very, very different) – has brought into sharp focus the fact that she doesn’t really fit in anywhere, not in Ireland and not at home; and if she loses Evan’s friendship she will be truly alone. She tells him she wants them to forget their one night together and go back to the way things were – and can’t understand why Evan doesn’t agree it’s for the best, and why he eventually begins to pull back from her.
Evan is a gorgeous beta hero; an intellectual who can crack a dirty joke along with the best of them and whose concern and love for Kate shines through in his words and actions. He’s kind, charming and perceptive, but his upbringing by a mother who constantly belittled him has left him a little emotionally bruised and he’s suffered bouts of depression throughout his life – something Kate tackles superbly, offering understanding, compassion and acceptance.
The love story is beautifully nuanced and the love scenes are sensual as we see Evan and Kate tentatively exploring the possibilities for more than friendship at the same time as they fear to take the steps that will irretrievably change things between them. It’s true that Evan is now more willing to put his heart on the line while Kate struggles with the fear that she could lose him and allows that fear to push her to retreat from him and from what she really wants; and there were times this reader found Kate’s reticence just a teeny bit frustrating. Yet in the two years since Con’s death, Evan allowed his fear of rejection to keep him far away from the temptation Kate presented, so he, too, has been guilty of running from his deepest desires.
My one complaint about the story overall is that Kate’s inability to realise why Evan is so hurt when she wants to ‘go back to how things were’ goes on a little too long – and it’s hard to believe she can really be so obtuse about it when he has been her closest friend for so many years. That point knocked my final grade down a little, but didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the book and isn’t going to prevent my recommending Scandalous Ever After to others.