The year is 1748, and Lady Juliana Uppingham awakens in a pool of blood, with no memory of how her new husband ended up dead beside her. Her distaste for her betrothed was no secret, but even so, Juliana couldn’t possibly have killed him…could she?
Juliana’s only hope is Sir Edmund Ashendon, a dashing baronet with a knack for solving seemingly unsolvable crimes—and a reputation for trouble. A man as comfortable in the rookeries of St. Giles as he is in the royal court, Ash believes Juliana is innocent, though all signs point to her as the killer. He doesn’t expect to develop a soft spot for the spirited widow, one that only grows when escalating threats against Juliana force Ash to shelter her in his home.
When another body is found, it becomes clear that Juliana has been dragged into something much, much bigger than simply her husband’s murder. With a collection of deadly black-tipped feathers as their sole clue and a date at the end of a hangman’s noose looming, they’ll have to find the real killer—before it’s too late.
The Wedding Night Affair is the first book in a new series of historical mysteries set in Georgian England entitled Ash & Juliana for its two protagonists – Sir Edmund Ashendon, a well-to-do young lawyer and Lady Juliana, daughter and sole heir to the Earl of Hawksworth. This opening instalment has a similar premise to the first books in at least three other historical mystery series I can think of – Lady Julia (Deanna Raybourn), John Pickett (Sheri Cobb South) and Lady Darby (Anna Lee Huber) – in that the heroine is accused of murdering her (thoroughly unpleasant) husband, but that’s really the only similarity, and The Wedding Night Affair very quickly establishes its own distinctive world and authorial voice.
The story opens in a memorably shocking way as new bride Lady Juliana awakens the morning after her wedding to Lord Godfrey Uppingham. Every part of her body aches and she’s covered in bruises; her wedding night was one of pain and terror as her husband used her roughly and repeatedly in a way she had not been at all prepared for. (The assaults are not detailed on the page but are referred to in sufficient detail as to leave no doubt about what took place the night before.) When Juliana moves the covers so she can get out of bed, she at first thinks the smear of blood on her thighs is only to be expected – until she realises it’s more than a smear. She’s lying in a pool of blood, her husband lying flat on his back next to her with his own knife sticking out of his chest. The same knife he’d used to slice through her clothes the night before.
Juliana’s screams naturally bring servants running, followed by her in-laws, who immediately berate her for alerting the servants by making so much noise and then accuse her of murdering their son. Still in shock, the only thing Juliana can do is cling to the knowledge that she didn’t kill her husband while his parents send her back to her family home in disgrace.
Henry Fielding (yes THE Henry Fielding) is the magistrate in charge of Bow Street at this time, and having learned of the murder, asks lawyer Sir Edmund Ashendon to go to question the lady and bring her back to Bow Street where she can be safely housed until a date is set for her trial. Already intrigued by the case, Ash agrees and makes his way to the Hawksworth town house, where he is able to speak with Lady Juliana and get her side of the story. As he listens to her and realises how terribly she has been treated by everyone around her, he can’t help feeling sympathy – and listening to her account of her wedding night, suggests she may have been acting in self-defence. But Juliana insists she didn’t commit the murder – and Ash is starting to believe her.
The Wedding Night Affair gets this series off to a good start; and I should say now that while the murder mystery is solved and we find out who killed Uppingham, the author has also set a larger, overarching plot into motion featuring the mysterious London crime-lord known only as Raven, which is to be continued in the next book. In this one however, we watch as Ash and Juliana work together to find the evidence necessary to exonerate her, and in doing so, develop a strong friendship with the potential to turn romantic at some point in the future. There’s a definite attraction between the pair, but the author very wisely keeps it fairly low-key and allows them to get to know each other, and for Juliana – in the company of Ash and his family – to be able to enjoy the sort of family life she’s never had.
Ash is an engaging hero; kind, intelligent and principled, he doesn’t open up often or easily, but he finds himself letting his guard down with Juliana (just a little bit) and maybe liking her a bit more than he feels he should. He’s the head of his family and obviously cares deeply for his siblings, but there are some secrets in the family’s past he’s keen to keep hidden.
One of the best things about the book is its very strong sense of time and place – which isn’t surprising considering that L.C. Sharp is a pseudonym for Lynne Connolly, who has written a number of historical romances set in the period. Her research is always impeccable and she makes really good use of it, inserting fascinating period detail (such as the very real ‘fad’ for kidnapping heiresses and forcing them into marriage or holding them for ransom) into the background or even into the main plotlines, and evoking the sights, sounds (and smells!) of the smoke-filled pubs and taverns, or the narrow, muddy streets or the grand, Palladian mansions of the newer West End.
She also hammers home just how precarious life could be for a young woman in Juliana’s position. Outwardly living a life of luxury, she seems to have it all, but behind closed doors her parents treat her despicably, marrying her off to a man of whose depravities they are well aware in order to further her father’s plan to have her son inherit his lands and title. Sadly, it takes a horrific assault to set her on the path towards becoming her own person, but I was rooting for her to make the most of her second chance (and I may have been cheering inwardly when she at last talks back to her horrible parents!). The one issue I had with that though, was that Juliana so often thinks “I’ll never go back to being that person” (or words to that effect) that it felt repetitive and got old very quickly. I could see her gradually taking control of her life; I didn’t need to be reminded she was doing it so often. There are a few other minor irritants along the way, such as Juliana’s very nearly TSTL moment (when she decides to go against Ash’s express wishes) and an early clue which was then forgotten about until near the end.
One last thing. I know authors often have no input into the titles for their books, but whoever came up with this one has devised something misleading. “The Wedding Night Affair” gives the impression this is much a more light-hearted read than it is, so if you’re thinking about picking it up, please take note of what I’ve said about the way in which the story begins.
Poorly chosen title aside, The Wedding Night Affair nonetheless earns a recommendation. The characters are engaging, the plotline is intriguing and I’m invested enough to want to read book two, The Sign of the Raven, when it comes out later this year.