Reader & reviewer Janet Webb reviews one of the most up and coming authors in the historical romance genre, find out what she has to say – enjoy!
A Gentleman Undone by Cecilia Grant
From the back cover:
“Lydia Slaughter understands the games men play—both in and out of the bedroom. Not afraid to bend the rules to suit her needs, she fleeces Will Blackshear outright. The Waterloo hero had his own daring agenda for the gaming tables of London’s gentlemen’s clubs. But now he antes up for a wager of wits and desire with Lydia, the streetwise temptress who keeps him at arm’s length.
A kept woman in desperate straits, Lydia has a sharp mind and a head for numbers. She gambles on the sly, hoping to win enough to claim her independence. An alliance with Will at the tables may be a winning proposition for them both. But the arrangement involves dicey odds with rising stakes, sweetened with the unspoken promise of fleshy delights. And any sleight of hand could find their hearts betting on something neither can afford to risk: love.”
Does the copy of back covers always accurately represent the content of a book? Most of the time it’s pretty darn good. But let me expand upon this description a little. When Will Blackshear meets Lydia Slaughter at a gambling club, she is indeed a kept woman: she’s the mistress of a “square-jawed protector”, Viscount Roanoke, who had “plucked her out of Mrs. Parrish’s establishment”. So this is a little different already from the not uncommon courtesan/protector scenario. Lydia had worked for years in a sophisticated brothel that catered to the most demanding and outré demands of its aristocratic clientele. The only other character in romantic historical literature that also worked in a brothel that I can recall was Priscilla, the heroine of Balogh’s A Precious Jewel. We learn later that Roanoke had indeed taken Lydia away from Mrs. Parrish’s establishment but he had not paid her for that privilege, as was customary. Indeed, other than Roanoke’s crude allusion to Lydia’s sexual sophistication, her appeal seems to have been her barrenness. But we are given to understand that Lydia is attracted sexually to her protector and enjoys his generosity and skill at the arts of love. Be that as it may, she would prefer a life of quiet privacy, where she can live without plying her trade and trading her favours for financial support. Because Roanoke had not settled money on her when he took her away from the brothel, she needs to amass enough capital so that she can live on the interest, albeit frugally. She intends to get money through skimming off the top of Roanoke’s gambling wins.
Will Blackshear needs money in order to settle a debt of honor and to solidify his partnership in a shipping endeavor. He also intends to win his way into an independent future at the tables. Will and Lydia meet: he is taken with her from the start and he steps out of the expected behavior of a gentleman at that time to demand that Roanoke and indeed every man around the gambling table speak of Lydia with respect. Does that make her instantly fall in love with Will? No, this is far too complex and dark a tale to have so simplistic a plot line. Lydia will come to need Will’s entree at the tables and his help in investing her money in order to bring her life plan to fruition. Will needs Lydia’s phenomenal gambling and mathematical skills in order to win the amount of money they both need. But of course they are attracted to each other and their excruciatingly slow dance towards on another is a joy to read.
It perhaps seems appropriate in this Jubilee Week to remember the motto of the oldest order of chivalry in the United Kingdom, the Order of the Garter. As the story goes, according to the Wikipedia entry, it “supposedly originated when King Edward III was dancing with his first cousin and daughter-in-law, Joan of Kent. Her garter slipped down to her ankle, causing those around her to snicker at her humiliation. In an act of chivalry Edward placed the garter around his own leg, saying “Honi soit qui mal y pense”, and the phrase later became the motto of the Order.” There are many translations of this motto but in essence it means “Evil be to him who evil thinks”. How easy it is to read a synopsis about a working courtesan who enjoys her work and a broken soldier who is haunted by a hideous mistake on the battlefield and think we know how this story goes. That Lydia is a wanton woman who is using her sexuality to achieve her ends and that Will is a simple soul that is being led down the garden path by a trickster and a conniving con artist. But that’s thinking evil and you would be wrong. Lydia and Will have an intimate acquaintance with powerlessness and throughout A Gentleman Undone, they rebuild their souls through how they treat each other and those in their lives. Without revealing the very touching ending, they both sacrifice their own desires for someone who needs their help. They are the essence of a lady and a gentleman.
Speaking of which, how very refreshing to see Cecilia Grant’s portrayal of Lydia’s friends, her fellow courtesans – they are more than what they do: they are individuals, not perfect but not caricatures either. These friends see Lydia for who she really is, understanding her deepest desires perhaps even earlier than see does.
Bravo Ms. Grant. A wonderful book, unusual and beautifully written.
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