Scandalous (The Outcasts #3) by Minerva Spencer

This title may be purchased from Amazon

“Have you no decency?”

Straight-laced missionary Sarah Fisher has never met a man like Captain Martin Bouchard. He is the most beautiful person—male or female—she’s ever seen. Overwhelmingly masculine, elegantly attired despite months at sea, he is in complete command of everyone and everything around him: everyone, that is, except Sarah. But that’s about to change, because Sarah has bought Bouchard’s mercy with the only thing she has to sell: her body.

“None at all…”

In spite of her outrageous offer, Martin has no doubt Sarah is a virgin, and a most delectable one at that. But instead of bedding her, he finds himself staring down the muzzle of his own pistol. Clearly, the longer she stays on his ship, the greater the chances that she’ll end up its damned captain! Most infuriating of all, she looks past his perfect exterior to the wounded man inside. Can Martin outrun his scandalous past in time to have a future with the first woman to find and capture his heart?

Rating: B-

Scandalous is the third book in Minerva Spencer’s series The Outcasts, and it takes as its hero Martín Etienne Bouchard, the beautiful , enigmatic and seductive privateer who was introduced in the previous book, BarbarousMs. Spencer’s sophisticated, precise prose continues to impress, as does her ability to tell a compelling story and create complex characters, but something about the principals and romance in Scandalous didn’t quite gel for me.  The heroine is determined and independent of spirit in a way that feels perfectly right for the story and the period, but the hero, while he has a truly traumatising backstory, spends much of the novel behaving like an emotionally stunted adolescent. The author skilfully makes the reader aware that there are good reasons for Martín’s behaviour and actually manages (sometimes) to make him into a fairly sympathetic character – even before we find out the true extent of what he went through (which doesn’t happen until fairly near the end) – but there were still times I came perilously close to losing patience with him.

Martín Bouchard is a former slave who is now a wealthy privateer who has built himself a fearsome reputation as a cold, hard killer who was more concerned with his cravat than his life. Not surprisingly, Martín hates those who buy and sell slaves with a passion, so he has little sympathy for the crew of the Blue Bird, a Dutch Ship with a hold full of slaves, when he captures it off Africa’s Gold Coast.

The daughter of missionaries, Sarah Fisher was born in Africa – in the village of N’Goe – where she’s lived all her life.  Her parents died after contracting a sickness that killed many in the village, and since their deaths some two years earlier, Sarah has acted as the village’s healer.  When the slavers arrived in N’Goe and captured all its inhabitants, Sarah went with them, which is how she comes to be aboard the Blue Bird when it is attacked by the Golden Scythe, a British privateer, at the same time as the crew is on the verge of mutiny.

To try to avert the latter, Sarah and the ship’s captain Mies Graaf go aboard the Golden Scythe to parlay with its captain – who is the most beautiful man Sarah has ever seen.  But Captain Bouchard is as intractable as he is handsome; he refuses to allow the Blue Bird to return to port to return its ‘cargo’ and has no patience with Graaf’s protests that the slaves were purchased without his consent or knowledge.

When the woman who accompanied Graaf enters the discussion, Martín finds himself liking her spirit as well as the way the snug breeches she’s wearing are clinging to her legs.  He’s far more used to women throwing themselves at his feet than arguing with him and prefers it that way – although the way this particular woman refuses to back down certainly enlivens the discussion; she’s not especially attractive in the way Martín usually appreciates, but he’s nonetheless sufficiently interested to suggest he’ll show mercy to the crew of the Blue Bird if she’ll share his bed.  But when what should have been a night of pleasure is interrupted and Martín finds himself looking down the barrel of his own pistol, he decides Sarah is more trouble than she’s worth and just wants to get her off his ship.

Roughly half the book is taken up with the journey to England, and the rest sees Sarah connecting with long-lost relatives and deciding what she wants to do with her life.  Throughout the story, Sarah and Martín move towards each other and then away in a continual (and frustrating) dance, Martín clearly infatuated with Sarah and in deep denial about it, Sarah telling herself a man like Martín can’t possibly be interested in a woman like her.  Martín hates the way Sarah seems able to see through his tough outer shell to the parts of himself he’s carefully hidden away and tries desperately to convince himself he wants nothing more than to be rid of her.  He continually pushes Sarah away, treating her with disdain and wounding her with insults and rudeness.  But Sarah keeps trying to reach him – certainly going beyond the point at which my patience would have snapped! – with kindness and compassion, until someone tells her that Martin doesn’t react well to either of those things and that she should instead treat him as badly as he has treated her if she really wants to get through his defences.  After they arrive in England things between them don’t change much.  Martín keeps trying to keep his distance, but gets all caveman when other men take an interest in Sarah; he keeps trying (and failing – little Martín refuses to perform with anyone except her) to assuage his lust elsewhere, and telling himself she’ll despise him if she finds out the truth about his past.  He seems to prefer to wallow in his own fears of inadequacy than to see what’s under his nose and acknowledge the truth of Sarah’s feelings for him and his for her.

Minerva Spencer is a gifted storyteller and in Scandalous, has crafted a compelling and very readable tale featuring characters who, while not particularly likeable, are flawed and complex.  But no matter how well characterised or how vibrantly written – and both those things are true here – a romance stands or falls upon how the hero and heroine interact, how strong the chemistry is between them and on readers being able to buy into their relationship –  and I’m afraid that’s where the book falls down.  The author does a good job of making it clear that Martín is a very damaged individual, but his poor behaviour towards Sarah goes on for too long, and by the time he finally does start to show a bit of maturity, it’s too little too late. (I actually felt as though he’d had an overnight personality transplant.) He spends most of the book denying his attraction to Sarah – an attraction I never quite understood – and actively avoiding her; and while Sarah is an admirable character to start with – strong, determined and courageous – as the story progressed, I couldn’t understand what she actually saw in Martín and what drove her to forgive him over and over again other than his looks and abilities between the sheets.

Scandalous is obviously going to be polarising as some readers will be completely turned off by Martín’s behaviour towards Sarah, while others will be prepared to cut him some slack given his traumatic background. It’s not a perfect novel by any means, but it stands out from the current – rather disappointing – crop of historical romances due to its superb prose, well-developed characters, and interesting and unusual plotline.  I’d have rated it more highly had the romance been more convincing and the leads more appealing, but ultimately, it engaged me and held my attention for the duration, so I’m giving it a cautious recommendation.

Barbarous (The Outcasts #2) by Minerva Spencer

This title may be purchased from Amazon

He could be her ruin

Hugh Redvers is supposed to be dead. So the appearance of the sun-bronzed giant with the piratical black eye patch is deeply disturbing to Lady Daphne Davenport. And her instant attraction to the notorious privateer is not only wildly inappropriate for a proper widow but potentially disastrous.Because he is also the man Daphne has secretly cheated of title, lands, and fortune.

She could be his salvation

Daphne Redvers’ distant, untouchable beauty and eminently touchable body are hard enough to resist. But the prim, almost severe, way she looks at him suggests this might be the one woman who can make him forget all the others. His only challenge? Unearthing the enemy who threatens her life . . . and uncovering the secrets in her cool blue eyes.

Rating: B

I thoroughly enjoyed Minvera Spencer’s début novel, Dangerous, and have been looking forward to its follow-up Barbarous, which features the dashing privateer Hugh Redvers, who played an important secondary role in the earlier novel.  I was engaged by the author’s sophisticated, witty writing, and her ability to create rounded and engaging characters who acted and spoke like adults rather than brattish teenagers; her prose and dialogue were definitely above average, and in some cases, well above it, and I was keen to read more of her work.

This second book in her The Outcasts series is somewhat different in tone to the first, and feels more like a traditional historical romance than the first one.  Hugh Redvers, Baron Ramsay and nephew of the Earl of Davenport, has been believed dead for almost twenty years, so his sudden reappearance at his (now deceased) uncle’s Sussex home comes as something of a shock to its mistress.  Banished by the earl because of his disgraceful behaviour, twenty-year-old Hugh left England and was captured by Barbary corsairs off the Gibraltar coast. Sold to the Sultan of Oran, he endured years of suffering and violence before, years later, he engineered his escape and became One-Eyed Standish, captain of the Batavia’s Ghost, King’s Privateer and scourge of the high-seas.  He’s finally returned to England in response to a summons from his oldest friend, who has received letters threatening the lives of the late earl’s widow Daphne and her twin sons, Lucien – the young earl – and Richard.  Hugh arrives at an opportune time; Daphne has just bloodied the nose of her smarmy cousin Malcolm Hastings who is attempting to force her into marriage (and force himself on her).  Seeing her dishevelled state, Hugh quickly draws the boys away and plays with them while she tidies herself and then resumes the picnic they’d originally intended to have.  She’s cool, composed and doesn’t freak out, which I really liked about her.

After Daphne gets over the shock of Hugh’s return she realises she’s got bigger problems than the fact that she’s as hopelessly infatuated with him as she was when she was a ten-year-old girl mooning over her handsome neighbour.  We learn early on that she was raped when she was just seventeen (by the aforementioned smarmy cousin), and that she was left pregnant as a result.  The Earl of Davenport – her mother’s oldest friend – although some fifty years Daphne’s senior, came to her rescue, married her (although they never lived as man and wife) and acknowledged the boys as his when they were born.  But now Hugh has returned, Daphne believes she has deprived him of what is rightfully his (the earldom), and feels dreadfully guilty about it.  Her intense attraction to him only makes things worse; she longs to spend time with him and, being honest with herself, to experience passion and the pleasure she’s sure he is capable of giving her; but knows she has to make plans to leave Lessing Hall as soon as she’s confessed the truth, as Lucien will no longer have any claim to it.

I have to take a quick tangential detour here, because this plot point bugged the hell outta me.

I don’t claim to be an expert on the laws of inheritance in the 19th century, but my understanding is that at this period, a child born to parents who were married at the time of his or her birth was legitimate, regardless of whether the woman’s husband actually provided the sperm.  This means that Lucien is – perfectly legally – the Earl of Davenport.  Would it cause gossip and scandal if there were rumours about Lucien’s true parentage?  Undoubtedly.  But would it make any actual difference to who held the title?  Unlikely.

The problem, then, is that this makes a large part of the plot redundant.  Daphne spends over half the book genuinely intending to tell Hugh the truth and finding reasons to put it off – but other than the fact that she feels terribly guilty, her fessing up wouldn’t actually change anything.

Anyway.

Hugh is a terrific hero.  He’s handsome, funny, sexy and larger-than-life (as well as larger than pretty much everyone else around him!), but he’s also kind, honourable and thoughtful, qualities which show in his every interaction with Daphne’s sons as well as those with Daphne herself, and I loved that he was so self-aware and prepared to let himself show his softer side when it came to Daphne and the boys.  He’s coming up on forty, and is finding his swashbuckling life on the high seas has palled somewhat; having a girl in every port was great for many years, but now, he wants more than just a warm body, he wants a companion, a woman he can enjoy out of bed as well as in it.  The attraction between him and Daphne sparks and crackles, and while the ‘inexperienced widow’ figure is perhaps a little cliché, the author develops their relationship very well.  Daphne gives as good as she gets when it comes to their verbal sparring, and Hugh has a major weakness for women who appear immune to his charm; he’s used to women throwing themselves at him, so having Daphne view him as a mere inconvenience only adds fuel to the fire on his part.

While I liked both principals and found their romance well-done, I had a couple of other issues with the story as a whole which prevent me from giving it a higher grade.  Firstly, there’s the blackmail/kidnap plotline towards the end, in which Daphne has a bit of a personality transplant and the villains are barely two-dimensional.  And then there’s the way the author deals with Daphne’s assault and her memories of it.  I don’t want to give too much away, but it struck me that Ms. Spencer wanted to have her cake and eat it; to provide a reason for Daphne to have to marry the earl and eventually lead to all that guilt at stealing Hugh’s birthright, but make it so that it wouldn’t affect her desire for Hugh or her ability to have sex with him, and I found it rather jarring.

Having said all this, I did enjoy Barbarous, although I wasn’t quite as pulled in to it as I was by Dangerous.  I found myself wondering if this book had been written before Dangerous, as there’s a pivotal scene in which Mia appears which obviously takes place before the events of that book.  I also felt Barbarous was a little less … polished is the only word I can come up with, not so much in terms of the writing and characterisation, but definitely in the case of the plot.  I may well be completely off the mark – it’s just a hunch.

Even with my reservations, I’m going to give Barbarous a cautious recommendation, because the romance is well done and Hugh is a hero to die for.  The plotline is definitely wobbly, but I know I’m extra-picky about accuracy and that there are many for whom something like that will not be an issue.  The writing is a cut above average, the characters are engaging – and the scarcity of decent historical romances this year means that even a flawed one by a talented author is worth checking out.


[One last thing – Ms. Spencer does address the fact that a marriage between an aunt and nephew – even though Hugh and Daphne are not related by blood – was forbidden by church law, even though it wasn’t illegal under the laws of the land. ]

Dangerous (The Outcasts #1) by Minerva Spencer

This title may be purchased from Amazon

What sort of lady doesn’t make her debut until the age of thirty-two? A timeless beauty with a mysterious past—and a future she intends to take into her own hands…

Lady Euphemia Marlington hasn’t been free in seventeen years—since she was captured by Corsairs and sold into a harem. Now the sultan is dead and Mia is back in London facing relentless newspapermen, an insatiably curious public, and her first Season. Worst of all is her ashamed father’s ultimatum: marry a man of his choosing or live out her life in seclusion. No doubt her potential groom is a demented octogenarian. Fortunately, Mia is no longer a girl, but a clever woman with a secret—and a plan of her own . . .

Adam de Courtney’s first two wives died under mysterious circumstances. Now there isn’t a peer in England willing to let his daughter marry the dangerously handsome man the ton calls The Murderous Marquess. Nobody except Mia’s father, the desperate Duke of Carlisle. Clearly Mia must resemble an aging matron, or worse. However, in need of an heir, Adam will use the arrangement to his advantage . . .

But when the two outcasts finally meet, assumptions will be replaced by surprises, deceit by desire—and a meeting of minds between two schemers may lead to a meeting of hearts—if the secrets of their pasts don’t tear them apart . . .

Rating: B+

There’s been a shortage of really good historical romance so far this year.  I can count the number of DIKs I’ve given  on the fingers of one hand, and sadly, the lists of upcoming releases for the second half of the year don’t look to be offering much to shout about either.  But a shortage isn’t a complete absence; there have been a few gems, and début author Minerva Spencer’s Dangerous – the first book in her new series The Outcasts – is among them.

I am going to raise my hand and admit that when I first read the synopsis – our heroine was kidnapped by pirates, sold to a Sultan and lived in a harem for seventeen years – I had my doubts.  Not just because of the old-skool connotations associated with the premise, but because so many of the historicals published at the moment are setting aside character and romantic development in favour of mystery and adventure plots – and I was leery of reading yet another poorly conceived  story featuring a hero and heroine in the grips of insta-lust who gallivant around breaking all the rules that governed male/female interactions in the early nineteenth century and jumping into bed in chapter three.   So I picked up Dangerous with a bit of trepidation, but was quickly engaged by the confident, lively writing and breathed a sigh of relief at the realisation that my preconceptions had been unjustified.

Lady Euphemia Marlington, daughter of the Duke of Carlisle, has recently returned to London following the aforementioned seventeen years spent in the harem of Baba Hassan, Sultan of Oran.  Now aged thirty-two, she is well beyond marriageable age  and is already an object of curiosity and gossip given her prolonged absence from society – and her father is desperate to find her a husband before she does something scandalous that will render her completely unmarriageable. Her vivacity, wit and forthright manner already set her apart from the other ladies of the ton, and she’s most definitely not the demure, biddable sort so many men want to take to wife – but Carlisle hopes that the enormous dowry he’s offering will outweigh the fact of Mia’s lack of societal polish (and her advanced age.)  To Mia’s dismay, most of the men dangling after her (dowry) are either past their prime or young striplings; but ultimately, her plans don’t require her to like or spend much time with her husband.  What she wants is a man who will marry her and then leave her alone so that she can pursue her scheme of returning to Oran in order to reunite with her son, Jabril.

Adam de Courtney, Marquess of Exley, is the father of three daughters, a widower twice over and doesn’t really want another wife.  But what he wants is one thing, what he needs is another… and he needs an heir.  He’s surprised at being sought out by the Duke of Carlisle when society at large generally gives him a wide berth, believing him to have been responsible for the deaths of both his wives …until he realises that the duke wants to recruit him to the ranks of possible suitors for his recently returned daughter.  Adam is not inclined to be manipulated – until he sets eyes on Mia.  Red-haired, green-eyed and simply oozing sensuality, she is not at all what he’d expected, and against his better judgement, he’s fascinated.  He has no intention of offering for her… until he does, surprised to hear from the lady herself that the sort of marriage she proposes is one sought after by most men – one with no emotional entanglements. Feeling unaccountably lucky to have found a woman who seems to have no qualms about being wedded, bedded and left to her own devices, Adam proposes, even though he’s sure Mia is up to something.  He just can’t work out what.

Mia is just as drawn to the handsome, coolly aloof marquess as he is to her, even though she realises that he isn’t going to be easy to manage and that she’s going to have to be careful around him if she’s to follow through with her plan to return to Oran.  Fortunately however, the fact that his principal estate is near the south coast is perfect for her plans – and the fact that she wants him desperately, wants the pleasure she’s sure he will be able to give her, is an added bonus.

There are so many ways the author could have got this story wrong; by turning it into a comedic fish-out-of-water tale as Mia continually outrages society with her lack of observance of the customs and societal norms; by telling a melodramatic story of her kidnap and rescue or focusing on Adam’s past and engaging in much angst and hand-wringing over his dead wives – but she skilfully avoids the potential pitfalls and instead concentrates on building the relationship between her principals and, even better, writes a couple who act their ages (thirty-two and thirty-seven) rather than like brainless teenagers.  Mia hasn’t learned  to dissemble and simper like an English miss; she is comfortable with her body and who she is, and the mental acuity necessary to maintain her existence amid the intrigue of the sultan’s court means she’s accustomed to thinking for herself.  Mia’s lack of inhibition, her obvious enjoyment of sex and her fierce intellect all delight her new husband, while Mia is falling in love with the loving, generous man she is discovering beneath Adam’s façade of icy disdain.

There are things Adam and Mia keep from each other – fairly big things – but their relationship is, for the most part, an honest one; and when the Big Secret comes into play in the last part of the book, Ms. Spencer doesn’t drag it out.  This couple actually communicates with each other and owns up when they do something wrong; the romance is well-developed and the sex scenes (of which there are several) do a great job of showing the couple’s growing intimacy and how it leads to trust, and eventually to love.

There’s a lot to enjoy about Dangerous, and although it’s not without its flaws, none of them were large enough to spoil my overall enjoyment.  While the aforementioned sex scenes are well written and integral to the development of the relationship, there are perhaps a few too many of them; and Mia has a number of almost-TSTL moments in the last few chapters which feel somewhat out of character.  Adam’s dead wives and his reasons for keeping his daughters away from London are plot-overkill; I get that there needs to be a reason for him to have been shunned by society, but the rest of it is largely unnecessary, especially as the concerns that lead him to keep his daughters sequestered in the country are dismissed by one sentence from Mia in a rather clumsy ‘why didn’t I think of that?’ moment.

But those really are minor criticisms, and I’d definitely recommend Dangerous to anyone looking for a new voice in historical romance.  Ms. Spencer’s writing is sophisticated and witty, the two principals are fully-rounded and there’s an engaging secondary cast, too, one of whom is going to be the hero in the next book in the series, Barbarous, which is due out in October.  You can be sure I’ll be picking it up.