An Earl Like You (The Wagers of Sin #2) by Caroline Linden

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When you gamble at love . . .

When Hugh Deveraux discovers his newly inherited earldom is bankrupt, he sets about rebuilding the family fortune—in the gaming hells of London. But the most daring wager he takes isn’t at cards. A wealthy tradesman makes a tantalizing offer: marry the man’s spinster daughter and Hugh’s debts will be paid and his fortune made. The only catch is that she must never know about their agreement . . .

You risk losing your heart . . .

Heiress Eliza Cross has given up hope of marriage until she meets the impossibly handsome Earl of Hastings, her father’s new business partner. The earl is everything a gentleman should be, and is boldly attentive to her. It doesn’t take long for Eliza to lose her heart and marry him.

But when Eliza discovers that there is more to the man she loves—and to her marriage—her trust is shattered. And it will take all of Hugh’s power to prove that now his words of love are real . . .

Rating: A-

When I pick up a book by Caroline Linden, I know I’m going to be able to lose myself in a beautifully written character driven novel featuring fully-rounded characters with terrific chemistry, and a romance that evolves naturally and which is always at the forefront of the story.  An Earl Like You, book two in her Wagers of Sin series, ticks all those boxes and then some, as Ms. Linden puts a different spin on the marriage-of-convenience trope in this story of a decent, well-intentioned man who becomes so tangled up in wanting to do the best for everyone around him that he risks the destruction of his own happiness.

Hugh Deveraux, Earl of Hastings, is something of an odd-one-out among romance heroes, because he grew up in a stable, caring family, his parents were a love-match and he had an excellent relationship with his father, whose unfailing good temper and generosity made him popular and beloved among his peers.  It’s only after his death and Hugh’s accession to the title that he discovers that his father’s conviviality concealed a staggering degree of financial irresponsibility.  The fortune amassed by Hugh’s forebears – including the money that was meant to have provided his mother’s jointure and his sisters’ dowries – is gone, and the entail on the Hastings estate means Hugh is unable to sell any land or properties in order to pay off the debts.   He’s left with only one option – he must make the sacrifice his father never had to make, and marry for money.  But not quite yet.  Faced with the prospect of revealing the true state of their finances to his grieving mother, and destroying utterly her memories of the love of her life, Hugh finds he just can’t do it.  Reasoning that if he can keep the news of their ruin at bay until his sisters make suitable marriages, he manages to keep the family afloat by virtue of his skill at the card tables for the next couple of years, although with the elder of his sisters soon to make her début, Hugh realises that the day of reckoning is at hand.  To secure Edith a decent marriage, Hugh will have to give her a decent dowry – ten thousand pounds at the very least – and with time running out, he reluctantly acknowledges to himself that it’s time for him to find a wealthy bride.

Eliza Cross knows that she will always be viewed as a “nouveau riche upstart” by London society, because her father made his considerable fortune in trade.  He wants her to make an aristocratic marriage, but she’s well aware that her huge dowry is the only thing likely to attract such a suitor – she has no connections and no pretentions to beauty – and thinks a quiet country life with a quiet country squire is most likely to suit her.  Even so, she can’t help but wish that the first time she set eyes upon the indescribably handsome Earl of Hastings she’d been wearing a nicer dress and not had her arms full of wet dog.  Assuming her father and the earl must have business together, Eliza isn’t too surprised when the earl starts to visit the house regularly, and finds herself looking forward to his visits – especially those occasions when her father is delayed and the earl is able to spend some time talking with her before his meetings.  Before long, Eliza has tumbled head-over-heels in love with him – and to her astonishment and delight, he seems to feel the same way about her and asks her to marry him.

Edward Cross has had his eye on Hugh for a while, and, judging him to be a decent, responsible man, suggests he might consider marriage to Eliza as a way out of his financial difficulties. Hugh is appalled at the idea of a father offering to sell his daughter into matrimony and says so – but Cross is persuasive. He won’t force Eliza into marriage, but if Hugh can court her and gain her affections, he’ll also gain a large dowry, a demure, well-brought up wife and the massive fortune she will eventually inherit. But Eliza must be willing – Cross is sure Hugh will be able to make her fall in love with him – and she must never find out the truth about their agreement. Hugh is not at all sure about this plan, but recognises that Eliza is almost certainly his best chance of providing for his mother and sisters, and agrees to court her.

There’s no question that this is a difficult set up to pull off, and I know there are some for whom this level of deception will be a dealbreaker – but Ms. Linden makes the plotline work brilliantly, showing very clearly what it costs Hugh in order to maintain his deceit and what he stands to lose if he doesn’t. He’s an honourable man stuck between a rock and a hard place, and it’s easy to sympathise with his situation and his desire to do right by everyone who depends on him. And the thing that makes it easy to do that is that we are left in absolutely no doubt that all the while Hugh is courting Eliza and doing his best to make her fall for him, he’s falling for her, too, even if he doesn’t realise it at first. Eliza describes herself as plain and ordinary, yet even though Hugh acknowledges she’s no beauty, he is taken with her smile, her graciousness… and tempted by the smoothness of her skin and the comeliness of her figure. She becomes more and more attractive to him as the story progresses and he falls more deeply in love with her; he’s attentive, protective and is obviously determined to be a good husband, regardless of his original motive for marrying her. But he’s being pulled in so many different directions that we know something’s going to give; his mother and eldest sister are not at all happy about his marriage to a cit’s daughter and are very hostile towards Eliza at first – especially Edith, whose betrothed – the son of a viscount – cuts up rough about such a lowly connection and adds yet another layer of complication to Hugh’s already challenging situation.

Intelligent, thoughtful and kind, Eliza is the sort of heroine who could, in the hands of a less talented author, so easily have come across as too perfect or insipid. Instead she’s a genuinely charming and decent young woman who, while perhaps a little naïve, is possessed of considerable inner strength and determination and exhibits personal growth over the course of the novel. I loved watching her win over her initially disdainful relatives, finding a way to connect with Hugh’s mother and supporting Edith through a difficult time; the ton may look down on her birth, but she’s a genuinely good person who displays maturity and a strong sense of self.

The romance between Eliza and Hugh is tender, sensual and passionate; the chemistry between them fizzes and sparks throughout and Ms. Linden develops a strong emotional connection between them. I dropped half a grade-point off my final rating only because Hugh’s deception goes on a little longer than I’d have liked – although the upside to that is that the story’s resolution isn’t overly long and drawn out.

Intelligently written, strongly characterised and gorgeously romantic, An Earl Like You earns a place on my keeper shelf, and Ms. Linden further cements her place as one of the best authors of historical romance writing today.

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