This book staggers to its feet with an opening that had me worried. Fortunately, once it hits its stride, it is a charming and absorbing read, and very recommendable.
Helena Laverick needs help from Daniel Brennan, her brother-in-law’s former man of affairs. Her youngest sister, Juliet, has eloped and she has no one else to turn to. Their father is confined to bed and Helena’s other sister, Rosalind, and brother-in-law, Griff, are honeymooning far away on the Continent.
Desperate to save Juliet, shy Helena travels from her home in Warwickshire to find Daniel in London. She places her hope in him, partly because of their mutual connection with Griff, but also because she believes Juliet has run off with a smuggler. Daniel, the bastard son of a highwayman, spent his youth among smugglers and must surely have contacts that will help them.
Daniel is bemused by the arrival of the very proper Helena on his disreputable doorstep. He doubts that smugglers are involved in the situation, but he will make inquiries. Unbeknownst to Helena, he has been attracted to her since they met while Griff was courting her sister. Because of his unfortunate background, however, he believes he is beneath the touch of a lady.
When Daniel finds that Juliet’s disappearance does indeed seem to have some connection with smugglers, he agrees to go after her. Although Helena has a weak leg - the remains of a crippling disease eight years before - she refuses to be left behind. Hoping to deter her, Daniel insists that the only way they could travel together without raising undue comment is to pretend to be married. To his consternation, she agrees and poor Daniel finds himself forced into intimate proximity with a woman he wants but cannot have.
Not the most original plot, perhaps, but it is an engaging retelling.
So why did the beginning put me off? Helena has spent her whole life trying to be a perfect lady. She not only follows the rules, she’s memorized the rulebook. In spite of this, it never occurs to her that a discreet note asking Daniel for a discreet meeting at a discreet time and place might be more, well, discreet than going alone to the lodgings of a single man in a slum. In addition, having made much of the fact that she cannot employ servants to help her find Juliet because they’ll gossip, she uses Griff’s own coachman to take her alone to the unsavory abode of a bachelor at dawn. How likely is it that this would pass unremarked? You can see why I feared the worst.
Having tripped over this hurdle, however, A Notorious Love rises to become the kind of nicely written romance I like best. The search for Juliet forms a sound premise to bring these disparate characters together and it keeps things humming along. But the real story is about Helena and Daniel as they learn to trust, then admire each other. Even better, we see both characters change and develop as individuals with the support and encouragement of the other.
Both have conquered great odds by sheer force of will. Daniel beat his criminal past to become a successful businessman. Helena learned to walk again, mastering pain and disability with courage. Their struggles have left them with demons - not to mention preconceived notions about the opposite sex - and it’s a pleasure to watch as they help each other to overcome their doubts and fears.
Helena finds a spontaneity and sense of adventure that her adherence to rules never permitted before. Daniel finds a sense of personal self-worth and tenderness inside his tough shell. It’s fun to watch as each brings out the best in a person who wasn’t sure they had it in them.
I have only one other complaint. During the first half of the book, Daniel is totally preoccupied with the state of his penis. In spite of - or perhaps because of - the many cute euphemisms the author uses (and uses, and reuses), this gets old very fast.
When his thought processes travel a little further north, the whole trip is a lot more fun.