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Born into one of New York’s most respected families, William Sloane is a railroad baron who has all the right friends in all the right places. But no matter how much success he achieves, he always wants more. Having secured his place atop the city’s highest echelons of society, he’s now setting his sights on a political run. Nothing can distract him from his next pursuit—except, perhaps, the enchanting con artist he never saw coming . . .
Ava Jones has eked out a living the only way she knows how. As “Madame Zolikoff,” she hoodwinks gullible audiences into believing she can communicate with the spirit world. But her carefully crafted persona is nearly destroyed when Will Sloane walks into her life—and lays bare her latest scheme. The charlatan is certain she can seduce the handsome millionaire into keeping her secret and using her skills for his campaign—unless he’s the one who’s already put a spell on her . . .
The heroes in Joanna Shupe’s Knickerbocker Club series are all rich, influential businessmen, some of them self-made, like Emmett Cavanaugh (hero of the first book, Magnate) and some, like Will Sloane in Baron, born into a wealthy family of New York blue-bloods whose standing in society is not all that different to that of the members of the English nobility on the other side of the Pond.
Will has spent most of his life spitting in the eye – metaphorically, of course – of his late father, a man who constantly belittled his son and believed he would never amount to much. Becoming the man of the family in his late teens, those taunts have driven Will, who has not only ably managed Northeast Railroad, the company built by his father, but greatly expanded it, adding considerably to his own and the family’s wealth and standing in doing so.
Now in his early thirties, Will continues to push himself incredibly hard, working all the hours God sends and then some; even though he knows he needs to slack off a bit. But he has started to feel that perhaps it’s time for him to make a change, and that change looks set to come quite soon, as he has been invited to join the ticket for the upcoming gubernatorial elections in New York, as lieutenant governor for former senator John Bennett.
There’s no question that Will’s desire for political office is partly influenced by the fact that his father had always wanted to wield political influence, but had never accomplished it. Will’s success will be yet another nose-thumbing to his sire, but before he can achieve it, a potential scandal in the form of a Russian spiritualist by the name Madame Zolikoff, needs to be dealt with, and quickly, before her association with Bennett – who sees her regularly for readings and advice – becomes known and makes the candidate into a laughing stock.
Attending one of her performances at a run-down theatre in one of New York’s less than salubrious districts, Will is surprised to find he rather likes what he sees. Zolikoff is a seductively attractive woman, and in spite of the fact that she’s a complete fake and he is determined to expose her as one, Will is strongly attracted to her. He confronts her backstage, equally surprised to discover that his physical size, obvious disapproval and, later, outright threats, don’t intimidate her in the least. She is forthright and defiant, telling him in no uncertain terms that she will not be scared away from her best client.
Ava Jones is not a woman to be intimidated easily – or at all – and certainly not by a pompous, snobbish, high-society railroad baron who has never known a day’s hardship in his life. The fact that’s he’s obscenely handsome is an unwanted distraction perhaps, but Ava has to keep her focus. She has to take care of her younger brothers and sister, aged twelve to fifteen, and her performances and private readings as Madame Zolikoff should mean that she will soon have enough money to be able to get them all out of their cramped lodgings in the city and away into the fresh air of the countryside.
The sparks fly between these two from the get go, and in spite of their obvious differences, there are a lot of similarities between them, too. Both have brought up younger siblings (Will’s younger sister, Lizzie, was the heroine of Magnate), and have suffered painful pasts; they work incredibly hard and are determined to succeed at what they do. Theirs is certainly never going to be one of those peacefully settled relationships because they are too much alike in many ways, but their mutual stubbornness is one of the factors that puts them on more of an equal footing than their respective situations might suggest. Will may be incredibly wealthy, but Ava isn’t interested in his money or what it can do for her; she sees a man in need and deserving of love and affection who needs someone to stand up to him occasionally, and for Will, Ava is the perfect combination of intelligence and determination, a woman who will challenge him and love him in equal measure.
Both Will and Ava are attractive, engaging characters and their romance is well-written, with plenty of sexual tension and nicely steamy love scenes. The strength of the attraction between them is intense, and the author balances that with the other plot elements extremely well, so that the whole story fairly races by, but in a good way; the way that has the reader so eager to find out what happens next that they continue reading until well into the early hours!
With all that said, a couple of bumpy patches towards the end of the book caused me to lower my final grade a little. Firstly Ava, who has been painted as a strong, self-reliant woman who is able to manage her family and her problems herself, is suddenly thrust into situations from which she needs rescuing, not just once, but twice. And while part of the appeal of the story has been in watching Will gradually unbend and shed some of his hauteur to become a man rather than a block of ice, the Big Romantic Gesture he makes feels completely out of character for the man we have come to know over the course of the book.
Otherwise, though, Baron is an engrossing, well-written tale. Ms. Shupe evokes the world and atmosphere of New York’s Gilded Age extremely well, there’s a great cast of secondary characters and I especially liked the passages which gave a glimpse into Ava’s tricks of the trade. The writing is confident and laced with humour and snappy dialogue. All in all, I’m definitely recommending Baron to fans of historical romance, especially those who are looking for something a little bit different.