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Once beloved by London’s fashionable elite, Hartley Sedgwick has become a recluse after a spate of salacious gossip exposed his most-private secrets. Rarely venturing from the house whose inheritance is a daily reminder of his downfall, he’s captivated by the exceedingly handsome man who seeks to rob him.
Since retiring from the boxing ring, Sam Fox has made his pub, The Bell, into a haven for those in his Free Black community. But when his best friend Kate implores him to find and destroy a scandalously revealing painting of her, he agrees. Sam would do anything to protect those he loves, even if it means stealing from a wealthy gentleman. But when he encounters Hartley, he soon finds himself wanting to steal more than just a painting from the lovely, lonely man—he wants to steal his heart.
This second book in Cat Sebastian’s Seducing the Sedgwicks series centres around Hartley, younger brother of Ben (hero of book one, It Takes Two to Tumble) whose backstory as explained in that book was both heartbreaking and intriguing. It’s impossible to discuss further without entering into spoiler territory for book one, so if you haven’t read it yet, but intend to and don’t want to know, then stop reading this review now.
If you have read the previous book, then you’ll no doubt recall that Hartley was just sixteen when he entered upon a sexual relationship with his wealthy godfather, Sir Humphrey Easterbrook, with the intention of giving his brothers Ben and Will the chance to have a safe, secure life. Ben never knew where the money for his and Will’s school fees came from, or who purchased Will’s naval commission – and it’s only after Easterbrook’s death and the rumours started by the man’s son, that Hartley finally told his brothers the truth. Over the years spent with Easterbrook, Hartley turned himself into a gentleman of fashion and has been used to being welcomed by all – but when gossip started to circulate about the true nature of his relationship with his godfather, he was immediately shunned. Now, he’s all but a recluse, rarely leaving the expensive house left him in Easterbrook’s will, and waited upon by only a couple of servants – and he expects even those to abandon him soon.
Sam Fox, publican and ex-boxer, is content with his lot running the Bell public house near Fleet Street. The pub is doing well – it’s popular with servants and tradesmen both black and white, his brother, Nick, is the cook, and Nick’s lady-love, Kate Bradley, a busy midwife, helps out when she can. Nick wants to marry Kate, and although she’s not accepted him – yet – she’s going to; but there’s something she needs to clear up first. Five years earlier, a wealthy gentleman offered her a princely sum to let him paint her in the nude, and, needing money to cover her father’s gambling debts, she accepted. Nick knows about it, but Kate doesn’t like the idea of Nick’s being hurt should the portrait resurface and engender nasty gossip. Sam says he’ll ask around to see if he can find what’s become of the painting – which is how come he ends up loitering outside a house in Brook Street and being mistaken for a potential housebreaker by Hartley Sedgwick late one night.
The large man hanging around the back door appears completely impervious to Hartley’s sarcasm, and instead of leaving, asks if he’s drunk and all but carries him into the kitchen. When Hartley’s guest explains he’s looking for a painting, Hartley realises immediately what sort of painting it is, but also has to admit that he has no idea what happened to Easterbrook’s ‘art collection’, as those particular items had disappeared by the time he inherited the house. But he’s determined to find out, and for the first time in months feels as though he has a purpose, even if it’s to obtain revenge against a dead man.
Sam and Hartley arrange to meet again to discuss the search and compare notes – or so each tells himself, not wishing to acknowledge that his interest is more centred on the other man than on anything to do with the missing naughty pictures.
Ms. Sebastian skilfully imbues the romance between this mismatched pair with a great deal of sensuality and tenderness. Neither has had much – if any – experience of gentleness or affection when it comes to relationships; neither has experienced romantic love and Hartley, especially, has walled himself off emotionally, partly as a way of dealing with the things he’s done, and now because he’s wary of ‘infecting’ anyone he cares for with the stigma he carries. But the connection between him and Sam is strong and impossible to resist; and because of Hartley’s reluctance to be touched, their sexual relationship develops in a way that is outside Sam’s experience, but which he discovers he likes very much. Because of his size and his past as a boxer, Sam’s previous lovers have assumed him to be violent and wanted him to be rough with them, but with Hartley, Sam realises he can take the time to give and accept the sort of warmth and caring he’s never been asked for and didn’t realise he needed. Hartley needs someone who can let him move at a pace he’s comfortable with, and Sam is only too happy to allow him to explore his desires and to at last experience the pleasures – both in and out of bed – to be had when two people care for one another.
Unsurprisingly, Hartley’s backstory is a difficult one to read about, and although Ms. Sebastian doesn’t go into gratuitous detail, what she does tell us is sufficient to paint a picture (pun unintentional) of what he went through and to explain why he is so tightly controlled and on edge. He’s also desperately lonely and has, for the past few years, disliked being touched, which of course makes even casual sexual encounters unsatisfying at best and impossible at worst. There’s a weight of sadness about him as he contemplates a life alone which permeates the early part of the novel and provides a pertinent contrast to what we’re shown of Sam’s life – content, surrounded by people who love him, and yet also facing a life without long-term companionship because it’s so difficult to find that special person in a world which says he can’t love as he wants to.
I’m pleased to say that the major criticism I expressed about the last couple of books of Ms. Sebastian’s I read – that there were so many different plotlines going on that none of them felt adequately developed – is not an issue here. The author keeps the romance between Hartley and Sam very much front and centre, and the other issues she touches upon – the racism Sam experiences on a daily basis, the crippling weight of Hartley’s shame, the inflexibility of society and the injustices practiced on the poor by the rich – are subtly and skilfully incorporated into the storyline.
A Gentleman Never Keeps Score is a touching, sexy, and gently humorous read, and I’m thoroughly intrigued by the set up for book three glimpsed at the end. The secondary characters are well-realised and I especially loved Hartley’s adopted ‘family’ – including a three-legged dog, a former prostitute and a young woman whose family disowned her when she became pregnant out of wedlock – whose interactions with him show clearly that Hartley is far from the aloof, cold man he believes he has become. Watching him regain his sense of self and rediscover his capacity for love and affection was truly lovely, and I closed the book with a smile of my face, confident that he and Sam were in it for the long haul.