A Notorious Vow (The Four Hundred #3) by Joanna Shupe

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

With the fate of her disgraced family resting on her shoulders, Lady Christina Barclay has arrived in New York City from London to quickly secure a wealthy husband. But when her parents settle on an intolerable suitor, Christina turns to her reclusive neighbor, a darkly handsome and utterly compelling inventor, for help.

Oliver Hawkes reluctantly agrees to a platonic marriage . . . with his own condition: The marriage must end after one year. Not only does Oliver face challenges that are certain to make life as his wife difficult, but more importantly, he refuses to be distracted from his life’s work–the development of a revolutionary device that could transform thousands of lives, including his own.

Much to his surprise, his bride is more beguiling than he imagined. When temptation burns hot between them, they realize they must overcome their own secrets and doubts, and every effort to undermine their marriage, because one year can never be enough.

Rating: B+

A Notorious Vow is the third book in Joanna Shupe’s The Four Hundred series, and quite possibly my favourite of the three.  In it, the daughter of a debt-ridden peer falls for a reclusive inventor who lost his hearing due to illness at the age of thirteen; it’s a bit trope-y, but the central love story is sensual and romantic as we witness the hero trying to talk himself out of love while the heroine tries to escape the self-doubt and insecurities that plague her as a result of her mother’s continual bullying and criticism.  I don’t think I’ve read a romance that features a deaf hero before; I can’t speak from experience as I’m not hearing impaired and don’t know anyone who is, but the author’s treatment of Oliver’s deafness and his reactions to the things he experienced as a result feel completely plausible and she pulls no punches when it comes to showing how misunderstood the condition was and the prejudice the deaf had to endure at the time the novel is set.

Lady Christina Barclay is viewed as nothing more than a means to an end by her parents, the Earl and Countess of Pennington.  Beautiful, well-mannered and demure, she has been brought up to obey her parents in all things and has been browbeaten by her mother for practically her entire life.  The family has fled to New York amid great scandal, and Christina knows her parents are planning to solve their financial worries by selling her off to the highest bidder. To escape her oppressive thoughts and her mother’s bullying, she spends a few hours every morning walking in the large, empty garden of the house next door, enjoying the peace and quiet for a few hours. She is aware she’s trespassing, but nobody has seen hide nor hair of the house’s owner in years, so it stands to reason she’s unlikely to do so.  Although she’s reckoned without the large dog, who, on this particular morning, bounds up to her and knocks her down, smacking her head against a bench and knocking her out.

Oliver Hawkes lost his hearing at thirteen and although he tried hard to assimilate into the hearing world, he was so often rejected and ridiculed that he eventually stopped trying.

He’d tried to carry on with what gentlemen considered a “normal” life after school. It had resulted in being called “dumb” and “broken” at every turn. Why should he try to fit into a society that so readily dismissed him?

Now aged twenty-nine, he keeps himself to himself, and is working on a device of his own invention that he hopes will eventually help those with hearing difficulties – not the completely deaf, like him – to hear more clearly.  He is very close to applying for a patent, but before he does that, wants to find a way of making certain parts of the device cheaper so its availability will not be limited to the wealthy.  He no longer leaves the house and interacts only with his friend – the doctor, who taught him to sign – and his butler, Gill, who has been with Oliver since childhood. But when he finds an unconscious young woman lying in his garden, he has no alternative but to carry her to the house and send for the doctor.

There’s an immediate frisson of attraction between Christina and Oliver despite the awkwardness of their first meeting.  And although Oliver tells her he doesn’t want her to visit his gardens again, he finds it impossible to be angry with her when, a few days later, he sees that she’s returned. He starts thinking over some of the things she’d said and realises that perhaps she’s unhappy… and discovers, to his surprise, that he wants to make her smile.

Oliver and Christina start spending a few hours together each day; she watches as he tinkers with his invention, he teaches her some basic sign language, and their mutual attraction deepens.  But then the thing Christina has dreaded happens –  she’s told she must marry a man old enough to be her grandfather who makes no bones about the fact that he wants a nubile, biddable young wife to hear him children.  Miserable, she tells Oliver what her parents have planned for her; he is appalled but tells himself he can’t get involved and merely suggests she should show her prospective bridegroom that she’s not as meek and biddable as he’s been led to suppose.  But when, a day or so later, Christina arrives in tears, clearly in acute distress, Oliver is forced to admit to himself that wants to protect her from anyone who would hurt her – and when her parents burst in on them,  they accuse him of compromising her and insist he marries her, having (of course) learned he’s incredibly wealthy beforehand.

Oliver resents the idea of being forced into anything.  It’s not that he doesn’t care about Christina or want to help her – he does, very much – but to be insulted in his own home and then forced to upend his life in a way that will undoubtedly distract him from his experiments … it’s not what he wants or had planned for himself.  But he can’t stand seeing Christina so upset, and he is eventually persuaded (by Christina’s cousin) to agree to the marriage.

The ceremony takes place that very night on the understanding that Christina’s parents are not to contact her afterwards and that as soon as the settlements are drawn up and paid, they will return to England.  Christina is almost unable to believe her sudden change in fortune – instead of marriage to an unpleasant, lecherous old man, she’s married to Oliver, a man she likes and is attracted to.  But Oliver, adamant he doesn’t want to be distracted from his work or to have his life change in any way decides that they should live separate lives, remain married for a year and then divorce (sigh – the let’s-get-married-and-then-get-it-annulled/divorced plotline has been done to death.).

Christina is disappointed and hurt when Oliver explains this to her, but she tries not to show it and determines to show her gratitude by doing exactly as her new husband wants.  Their romance is well-developed, growing out of a friendship that sprang up quickly but which is no less genuine for that.  They talk and laugh about many things, and discover that they’re both rather inclined to a quiet life and aren’t all that interested in the social whirl.  But after they’re married, Oliver spends a lot of time saying one thing and doing another, confusing Christina by giving off mixed-signals.  He tells her they needn’t interact, but then invites her to dine with him.  He sends her off to have dinner with a friend and then changes his mind and turns up at the restaurant – and soon he can’t help but admit to himself that wants Christina, as more than a friend.  Their romance isn’t all hearts and flowers though, and Oliver and Christina have some adjustments to make as they navigate their fledgling marriage.  Christina’s frustration at having her life dictated to her by others is starting to bubble over, and Oliver has to learn to step back and allow her to know what is best for her.  But most importantly, they are holding themselves back – not necessarily from each other, but from truly living their lives; they’ve become accustomed to playing it safe, and it takes an unexpected (and shocking) development to shake both of them out of their somewhat complacent attitudes.

One criticism I’ve made about other novels by this author is that she tends to throw in an eleventh hour suspense plot that is resolved rather too quickly and can feel a bit contrived.  There’s a similar final act drama enacted here, but because of the way it’s foreshadowed throughout the book, it feels more integral to the story, even though it’s resolved quickly and somewhat improbably.  In the grand scheme of things however, it was a minor issue and didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the novel.  A Notorious Vow is a gorgeously romantic, character driven love story featuring a pair of quietly appealing protagonists whose HEA is more than well-deserved.

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