|Fans of Stephanie Laurens will love this intensely sexy and romantic book. I was somewhat underwhelmed by the first two Bastion Club books, but this one is a definite keeper for me.
Charles St. Austell, Earl of Lostwiththiel, is in a quandary. He inherited a title he neither expected nor wanted following the deaths of his two older brothers. Now, he needs a wife.
Charles spent thirteen years deep undercover in France during the war and feels utterly disconnected from normal life in England, particularly the shallow social whirl in London. He needs a wife who will help him to find his footing again; but, in spite of the best efforts of his mother and sisters, cannot find anyone even remotely suitable amongst the giddy misses of the ton. When his enigmatic ex-boss, Dalziel, asks him to investigate rumors of treasonous activities in Cornwall, Charles gratefully accepts the excuse to flee London for the relative peace and quiet of his home.
A late-night reverie on these subjects is interrupted by the unexpected appearance of Lady Penelope Selborne. At first, he doesn’t recognize Penny, who grew up at nearby Wallingham Hall, because she is dressed in men’s clothing. She has been clandestinely following her cousin, Nicholas, since he arrived at Wallingham Hall, which his father inherited after the death of Penny’s brother, Granville. Nicholas has been asking disturbing questions about Granville’s activities.
Although Granville died a hero’s death fighting in France, Penny has become concerned that both he and her father were involved in selling secrets to the French. She would prefer that such traitorous activities, if true, be left unexamined now that the war is over. At twenty-nine, Penny considers herself firmly on the shelf, but her younger sisters would be ostracized for their male relatives’ perfidy.
Penny quickly realizes two things. First, her informal investigation and Charles’ formal one are connected. She must cooperate with him, trusting that he will do the right thing by her family. Second, her feelings for Charles have not changed in spite of the many years of separation. For his part, Charles begins to believe that Penny is exactly the woman he has been looking for as his countess.
One of the reasons this book is so intense, is that the history that these two characters share enables the author to ratchet up the sexual tension quite quickly. Although, in true Laurens style, the sexual encounters are both passionate and frequent once the hero and heroine give in to their desires, the author does not rush them into bed but lets the tension build at a natural, if swift, pace.
She has also used both the natural inclinations of the characters and the situation to create a feeling of isolation. This deepens the sense that, in spite of the events unfolding around them, the world that is the most real to Penny and Charles in the world that they alone inhabit. The reader is right there with them.
For these reasons, as well as the fact that these are both highly intelligent and strong characters, I believed absolutely that their feelings grew apace with their growing understanding of each other. There were also some very nice contrasts. Charles was especially convincing as a powerful, dangerous man who must surrender a measure of control to win Penny’s trust.
The external conflict, the search for the traitors who sold information to the French during the war, is a nice framework. It gives Penny and Charles a mutual goal, enabling them to spend time together and establishing the reality of their characters to each other as well as the reader. It also gives the author the chance to create the connection to the series which, since this story takes place outside of London, would otherwise be missing. The search, while an essential part of the story, definitely takes a back seat to the romance, and the connection to the series is handled deftly.
I enjoyed this book enormously. It is a well-written study of strong, smart characters, who must overcome both circumstances and their own flaws to achieve a satisfying happily-ever-after. These, I have realized, are the primary qualities of most of my favorite romances.
-- Judi McKee