I've come to the conclusion that all men in the Regency period were illegitimate and became emotionally unavailable rakes. At least that seems to be the case with the majority of the Regency novels read recently. Heartless is no exception.
Ariel Summers is a poor cottager's daughter who yearns to become a lady. When she is fourteen years old she makes a devilís bargain with the Earl of Greville. If he will send her to school and support her, she will become his mistress when she turns 18. Greville, never one to turn down a sweet young thing, agrees. However, unbeknownst to Ariel, the Earl dies two years later. On his deathbed, the Earl makes his illegitimate son Justin Ross heir to his title and all that entails, including Arielís contract. For the next two years Justin continues to fund Arielís education.
Justin never intends to make Ariel his mistress. However, he has been intrigued by the sweet innocence in Ariel's letters to his father. Justin has been betrayed before, and he wonders if such true purity is possible. Ariel for her part doesn't intend to become the Earlís mistress either. Seems sheís suddenly realized just what kind of life that would mean. Sheís certain that she can figure out some other way to repay her debt to the Earl of Greville.
When Justin meets Ariel, itís in the arms of another man and worse itís his archenemy Phillip Marlin. Although Ariel was actually fending off some unwanted advances, to Justin it appears that sheís not as innocent as she seems. Justin decides to hold the debt over Arielís head and make her sweat it out whether or not he'll actually make her his mistress.
This is one of several misunderstandings that make up the conflict of Heartless. Ariel does her best to foster good communication though. Caught in another situation involving Phillip, Ariel explains the situation immediately to Justin. Justin is impressed by her candor, and frankly so is the reader. Arielís forthright manner eliminates potentially drawn out misunderstandings on a few more occasions as well.
Justinís lack of faith in love is nothing new in a romance hero, but at least its understandable. He was never loved by anyone as a child and betrayed by the one person he loved as an adult. With no positive role models, how can he possibly know what love looks like? Still, his penchant for jumping to conclusions is irritating. Rather than depend on the information he knows about Ariel through her letters and actions, he makes his judgments based on appearances and unreliable sources.
After starting out so well, Ariel begins to lose ground as a character about a third of the way through the novel. Her naivetť borders on the annoying, as does her inconsistency. Early on she seems willing to excuse anything Phillip does while refusing to believe that Justin could be a good man, despite seeing examples such as his commitment to improve conditions at his textile mill. Also, her reason for not wanting to be Justinís mistress is because she wants to be able to have a good place in society and perhaps make a good marriage eventually. So, she decides to become his accountant to pay off her debt while still living in his house unchaperoned. It doesn't matter if she isn't sleeping with him, the outcome on her reputation would have been the same. Worst of all, toward the end of the book, Justin passes his tendency to assume the worst to Ariel and she loses the one thing that made her most appealing, her direct nature.
Justin and Arielís relationship does have its moments. Watching Justin realize that he is capable of being loved is touching. The way he describes Ariel as being the light that can finally chase away his darkness really makes him very human. Unfortunately, though the reader wants to sympathize with these characters, they get bogged down in the trap of assumptions and lack of communication.
The secondary plot involving Phillip and Justinís scheming sister Barbara is tedious. The characters are flat and one dimensionally nasty. During these parts in the story the urge to say ďJust get on with itĒ was strong. In the end, Heartless was an uneven story. Every time the characters started to show a little promise, they'd fall into some type of clichťd behavior and frustrate the reader.