Friday 28 April 2017

#CBR9 Book 35: "Devil in Winter" by Lisa Kleypas

Page count: 384 pages
Audio book length: 10hrs 06mins
Rating: 5 stars

Shy, stuttering and normally rather timid Evangeline "Evie" Jenner shows up on the doorstep of notorious rake and scoundrel, Sebastian, Lord St. Vincent with a somewhat surprising proposition. Evie knows Sebastian is desperate for money, after all, not two weeks earlier, he tried to abduct and indicated that he would quite happily compromise one of Evie's best friends, mainly because Lillian was a rich heiress. Evie is also due to inherit lots of money and rather sooner than Lillian, as her father is at death's door with consumption. Unfortunately, Evie's father is also a gambling club owner and her mother's relatives are refusing to let her see him, keeping her under lock and key and beating and starving her, to force her into marrying her grossly obese cousin, just so the family can get control of her inheritance. She even fears they may kill her once they get their hands on her money.

Hence Evie needs a different husband very quickly, and one who won't have trouble fighting off her horrible relatives. Having been a wallflower for more than a season, Evie knows she's not exactly enticing to men, but she's pretty sure the promise of all the money she can bring with her into the marriage will be attractive enough to St. Vincent. She makes him promise that they'll depart for Gretna Green immediately, so they can be married before her relatives notice she has escaped and can track her down. Evie is also adamant that she will only sleep with St. Vincent on the wedding night, to ensure the marriage is properly consummated, but otherwise, their marriage will be one entirely of convenience.

When the newly-weds arrive back in London, Evie wants to stay at Jenner's, her father's gambling club, to tend him until he passes away. St. Vincent refuses to leave her there unattended, so stays in the club as well and as the place has clearly been mismanaged during Jenner's illness, he takes steps to change things and ensure that the club that will be his once his new father in law passes, will actually be a profitable and successful business venture once more. Evie is surprised, as St. Vincent has never seemed interest in anything but idleness and leisure in the past. He claims he's just protecting his investment.

An unrepentant rake, St. Vincent in time begins to grow frustrated when his wife refuses her favours. He's not used to being rejected and eventually promises Evie that he will stay entirely celibate for three months to prove to her that he truly wants her and that she can trust that he will stay faithful to her. While the formerly timid wallflower shows her husband just how stubborn she can be, there are a lot of outside forces that wish the couple, and especially Evie, harm. Her relatives keep trying to abduct her from the club, intending to have the marriage annulled. One of the employees, fired by St. Vincent for incompetence, seems to have taken a particularly virulent hatred of Evie and tries to kill her more than once. Will the couple actually survive to discover whether they have a real future together?

Devil in Winter by Lisa Kleypas is one of the undisputed classics of the romance genre, and its hero, Sebastian, Lord St. Vincent is probably the rake that all other rakes aspire to become. That he really plays a straight up villain in the previous book in The Wallflowers series, going so far as to kidnap and threaten to rape the heroine of said book (who also happens to be the fiancee of his best friend - not cool, dude), makes it all the more impressive that Kleypas not only redeems him, but makes you care so very much for him. Of course this cynical, jaded, world-weary man meets his match in a stuttering, shy, but oh so stubborn wallflower. It doesn't take Sebastian long to discover that if Evie hadn't been quite so shy and reticent in the company of others because of her stutter, he would most likely never have given Lillian a second thought. Marrying Evie gives him someone to match his wits against, someone who actually resists and denies him, while also providing him with a project to sink his teeth into - turning the failing gambling club around. Sebastian is intelligent and extremely charming, but has never really found anything to hold his interest for very long. He may tell himself and others that he just wants to make sure he earns as much money as possible, but it's clear that he thrives when he has to take over the day to day running of Jenner's.

The daughter of a gentlewoman who ran away with a most unsuitable man, the low-born, ex-boxer gambling club owner, Ivo Jenner, Evie may not exactly have the most exalted pedigree, but the main reason she stayed a wallflower for so long was her insecurity and shyness due to her stutter. She finds, during the long, gruelling drive to Gretna Green, that when speaking to St. Vincent, at least in private, she barely stutters at all. Evie only got to visit her father occasionally while growing up, and as she became older, and more obviously a lady completely out of place in a den of iniquity like her father's club, they grew estranged, not helped by the controlling natures of her snooty relatives. While never kind to her, they only grew truly abusive when she refused to accept their decision that she marry her cousin. Then they starved, beat and threatened her, determined to break her spirit.

Fearing for her life, she knows the only way to be be safe is to have the protection of a prominent husband. She has no romantic illusions about the future of her marriage, and is surprised to discover that even when he tries to cover it with cynical comments, St. Vincent is nothing but kind and solicitous to her during their journey to Scotland. Her wedding night is also, unsurprisingly, more than satisfactory. Knowing her husband will likely sleep with others, Evie is determined not to let herself fall for the charming man, and therefore denies him entry to her bed. He keeps trying to seduce her and she resists, making him finally agree to the bet that if he manages to stay celibate for three months, she come to his bed happily. If he loses, he has to apologise to his best friend for the whole kidnapping his fiancee thing.

As well as two excellent and enjoyable leads, this book introduces Cam Rohan, hero of a later Kleypas book. While St. Vincent is initially both suspicious and jealous of the younger man, there really is nothing but a close friendship between Evie and Cam and they act more like siblings than potential lovers. Neither in this, nor the book where Cam is the actual hero, did I like the slightly uncomfortable portrayal of him as a "gypsy", with his quaint accent and superstitions, it feels culturally insensitive. Apart from that, he's a really good character, though.

Still in a pretty heavy reading slump, I seem to only want to re-visit old favourites, now read to me by skillful narrators in audio book form. Rosalyn Landor, who reads this book does an great job, although it took me a few chapters to get used to her drawl as the cynical Sebastian. She brings the story to life in an excellent way with her crisp British accent. No matter what you choose, this novel is highly recommended in any medium.

Judging a book by its cover: The version I have of this book is the re-issue, which instead of having a lot of pastels and random countryside scenes, features ladies in pretty dresses, which is more of a staple for romance novels. I'm assuming the cover model is supposed to be Evie, what with the red hair. She appears to have one of those dresses with the skirts that go on for miles and miles, however, which don't actually exist anywhere except on romance covers. Yards and yards of fabric. Pretty colour, though, the cool pale blue evoking cold and winter.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

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