Sunday 14 April 2013

#CBR5 Book 37. "The Handbook to Handling His Lordship" by Suzanne Enoch

Page count: 336 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Nathaniel Stokes became the Earl of Westfall when his cousin fell out of a boat in the Lake District and drowned. Before he was an earl, he was plain Nate Stokes, one of Wellington's most trusted spies, and he still can't seem to settle down and be a staid aristocrat. So no one will look to closely at him, or ponder why he was absent for so much of the war on the Peninsula, he cultivates a clumsy and bookish persona, wears fake spectacles and walks with a limp. He likes finding lost and stolen trinkets and artworks for his fellow peers, and is intrigued when the Marquis of Ebberling comes to him to find a governess that fled his home three years ago, who stole from him, and may have killed his wife. He's offering an obscene amount of money to get the job done quickly, and Nate likes the challenge of finding someone who disappeared without a trace so long ago.

Emily Portsman, as the girl is now known, found refuge at the scandalous Tantalus Club, a gambling establishment staffed entirely by well-born and educated young ladies,  run by Lady Haybury, the heroine of A Beginner's Guide to Rakes (and the first book in this series). She's not left the club for three years, for fear of Ebberling finding her. Twice a week, she has to dye her hair brown, and while she invites the occasional gentleman up to her rooms, she tries to stay unnoticed as much as possible. So when she overhears Nate at lunch, talking to his younger brother about locating a thief among the staff at the club, all her paranoia returns in full. Believing him to be a befuddled scholar, she invites him to her room to seduce his mission out of him, not realizing that she's playing straight into Nate's hands. As the two become closer, Nate becomes more and more convinced that Ebberling left several key points out of his tale, and that Emily is not the ruthless murderer he's been sent to find, at all. But how can they prove her innocence, against the word of a rich and powerful peer of the realm?

This is the fourth book in Suzanne Enoch's Scandalous Brides series. While all the couples from the previous books appear in this as supporting characters, it's also a pretty good book to start with, as it gives the reader all the information needed about the Tantalus Club and intriguing glimpses of the former couples, so that if you've not read the earlier books, you might be ore tempted to do so. It's probably also my favourite of the four, on a par with, and probably even better than the first one in the series.

The formidable Mrs. Julien has mentioned that she's partial to a big lug in her romances. While I don't mind them, I'm much more fond of the intelligent, slender and frequently sardonic hero, myself. Nate Stokes is just such a man, a war hero who can't boast about any of his achievements, because he's been a spy. He's had so many secret identities that he barely knows who he really is anymore, and he's certainly not comfortable with the Earldom that fell in his lap. He keeps himself busy finding lost trinkets for other peers, as well as teaching his younger brother how to be a responsible and trustworthy adult.

Emily (also known as Rachel, or Eloise) is a wonderful heroine. She's worked hard to get to where she is, getting an education and a higher position in society mainly by deceit and false references, and has had to hide, fearing for her life for years. She's proud of her abilities and enjoys her job at the club, making an honest living even though most of society scorns her and her fellow Tantalus Girls. She's refreshingly different from a lot of romance heroines in that she's not a virgin (none of the Scandalous Brides are, if I recall correctly), she enjoys sex and isn't afraid to admit it to herself or the hero. It's even more refreshing that the hero in no way judges her for it, or slut-shames her in any way.

Used to being the smartest person in any given situation, what Nate wants most of all, is to be surprised. Emily constantly ends up reacting in a different way than he expects, and he finds it wonderfully invigorating. The initial stages of the relationship, when the two of them are trying to subtly interrogate each other, while also trying to dupe the other from finding out their true intentions, is very enjoyable. I also liked that they came clean to each other before the situation got too much out of hand, and once they'd started being honest with each other, there was very little in the way of insecurities and melodrama, despite the two characters' gap in social standing.

While the resolution of the romantic plot line was fine, and seemed to be a lot more plausible than a lot of other historical romances out there (certainly a lot more than them just getting married and not caring what the consequences would be for their standing in society, Loretta Chase, you might want to take notes!), the resolution of the murder plot was utterly ridiculous. My disbelief can only be suspended so much, and I just see no way that Nate, highly valued agent of the Crown though he may be, would get that sort of assistance in clearing the name of his beloved, the employee in a gambling den. The rest of the book is delightful, though, so I will forgive the extreme implausibility of that bit of the plot. Be warned, if you're planning on reading this book, that it gets a bit silly there towards the end. Apart from that, I highly recommend it.

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