Thursday, 18 May 2017

#CBR9 Book 48: "A Lady's Code of Misconduct" by Meredith Duran

Page count: 400 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Jane Mason is an heiress, but her money is being slowly embezzled by her unscrupulous relatives to further her uncle's unscrupulous political career and she's being kept far away in the country, to make sure she can't meet anyone who might marry her. Her aunt and uncle plan to marry her off to her cousin, and eventually, Jane reluctantly agrees on the condition that she get a season in London first. She hopes to meet another suitable man she can convince to elope with her, offering him a share of her father's vast fortune as long as she is free of her relatives.

The only man not closely related to she's had much contact with during her near captivity in the country is Crispin Burke, another ruthless and self-serving politician, who nonetheless seems to be the only one to recognise that Jane isn't the meek and biddable young maiden she has pretended to be for years. He suggests that he may be able to help her procure a special licence, where she'd only have to enter the name of the groom to get herself a legally binding marriage certificate, but first he wants her to spy on her uncle for him.

When Jane discovers that her relatives want to move up her marriage to her spineless and cruel cousin, time is running out for her. She also overhears the news that Crispin Burke has been attacked and is unlikely to survive the week. He will therefore never be able to contradict her when she runs to his family and pretends to be his wife. Only, through some medical miracle (and to further the plot), Crispin survives and wakes from his coma, with amnesia. He doesn't remember the last five years, and when he is told by his family that Jane is his wife, he obviously believes them. Jane needs to stay "married" to him until her father's solicitors release her inheritance into her control, but lives in terror that Crispin regain his memory and discover the truth.

The weeks pass, however, and Crispin is still weak and disorientated because of his head injuries. He discovers that his "wife" is intelligent and well-informed on the issues he's been working on in parliament, and comes to rely on her completely to help him navigate both his private and professional life. Jane discovers that the post-injury Crispin is a very different from the cold, calculating man he was before, and can finally be herself, needed, valued and praised for her abilities, rather than having to swallow her pride and anger to avoid the abuse of her relatives. She knows that she is living a lie and that she will need to leave Crispin before he discovers the truth, but can't bring herself to leave or help herself from falling for her "husband".

With the notable exception of one book, I tend to really enjoy Meredith Duran's books. Her protagonists always tend to be rather flawed, and frequently often more morally complex than the characters you meet in other romances. There is usually a fair amount of angst involved before the couple gets their happy ending, but it feels all the more satisfying when you get to the end of the story.

Jane's father was involved in politics, but also made his fortune through excellent business sense and by taking good care of his workers and constituents. His brother, Jane's uncle, stepped into his political seat when he got ill and continued to hold it after Jane's father's death. Incensed that he didn't inherit much after his brother, thinking himself entitled to more after he gave his brother part of the initial investment he turned into his substantial fortune, he decides to get control of the fortune by keeping Jane away from society until she gives in and marries his son. Jane's parents were both progressive and believed in education for women. When she was sent to live with her aunt and uncle, Jane quickly learned not to speak her mind, or she would be badly beaten. She instead spends the next few years perfecting the persona of someone meek, bland and rather stupid, only concerned with her embroidery, while she plots for her escape.

Isolated on her uncle's estate in the country, the only unmarried man except her cousin that Jane ever meets is Crispin Burke, a young, handsome, but utterly ruthless politician, who will stop at nothing to to achieve his goal of becoming prime minister of Britain. When Crispin discovers Jane at an inn in the nearest village, where she was planning to meet an elderly groom she'd bribed to elope with her, he more or less blackmails her to spy for him, in return for him taking her back to her uncle's before anyone discovers she is missing. Realising that her life will be even worse if her uncle ever discovers the truth, Jane has no choice to agree, but once she's in London, she turns the tables on Burke and blackmails him right back, to get the special license she needs.

As she discovers once they are "married", Burke wasn't always a black-hearted villain and his family are appalled by his actions over the last few years. As he's trying to piece together his life over the years he's forgotten, he really doesn't like the person he's become, and he relies on Jane to help him undo some of the cruel and unscrupulous things he's been working on, beginning to work against his own proposed bill in parliament. Jane doesn't feel that she can lie about their feelings for one another, and claims their marriage took place shortly before his injury, and that it was one of convenience. She claims her fortune could help him further his career, a claim that is backed up by the many smug congratulations he receives from his former cronies, not to mention the enraged reaction of his former partner in crime, Jane's uncle.

The romance is a slow-burning one and Jane is more anguished by her actions the longer she stays in her sham marriages. Initially she fears what Crispin will do when he remembers because she fears he will report her to the authorities or force her back to her relatives, and as she begins to fall for him, she hates lying to him and fears that the truth will pain him.

Amnesia storylines, as everyone knows, are really rather silly, but there are so many ridiculous plot twists to make romances work that I didn't really care. Duran actually does spend quite a bit of time giving the reader enough back story into Crispin's past and family situation to see how he gradually became the really rather horrible individual we meet at the start of the book, so it's not as incredibly implausible that he's a completely different man afterwards.

Towards the last third of the book, I suspect Duran is trying to set up the plot of a book to come, when the story suddenly isn't so much about Jane and Crispin, or them trying to work together to undo some of the worst excesses of Burke's ruthlessness pre-injury, but starts being about a dark conspiracy, abducted noblemen and an implausibly evil villain who's behind all of it. She introduces the name of another man who I can only imagine will be the tortured and long-suffering hero of an upcoming book, but the whole thing felt a bit tacked onto the main story of this book. I did like what Crispin reveals to Jane once he finally admits he's had his memory back for some time, and confesses his love for her and they have the chance to have a proper future together, with all their dark secrets out in the open.

Check out my blog or Goodreads to find my reviews of Meredith Duran's previous novels. The only one I would strongly advise readers to stay entirely away from is At Your Pleasure, which is one of my least favourite romances of all time.

Judging a book by its cover: The designers of historical romance covers very rarely bother to check what era the book is set in, they just want a lady in a dress. This is really about as generic as romance covers get. In this case, a book set firmly in the Victorian era features a dress clearly from the Regency, which has one of those never-ending skirts that only romance heroines on covers wear. All I can say is, at least the back of her dress isn't half unlaced, displaying a sad lack of undergarments, which seemed to be so popular a while back.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

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