Why I read it: My good friend Merrian gave this book to me when she last visited Adelaide. I started reading it on the plane when I headed to Sydney for the ARRAwards on Saturday 22 March. (Sadly, the Australian aviation authorities haven’t got with the programme and they still make you turn off your electronic devices for at the beginning and end of flights. If you’re stuck on the runway for a while, you’re outta luck if the only book you have with you is digital. On the other hand, it did lead me to pick up a paper book and it was good, so there’s that.)
The picture to the left is the cover of the version I have but the happy news is that the books have been digitised and re-published by Cedar Fort Inc and are at most etailers.
What it’s about: (from Goodreads) Playing with Fire — Young widow Roxanna Drew was fair game in the sport of cads. Her suddenly impoverished state made her as vulnerable as her beauty made her tempting to men with more money than morals. Lord Marshall Whitcomb, who held her purse strings in his pawing hands, was intent on luring her into his bed. But even more dangerous was Lord Winn, who owned the dwelling where she sought refuge. The dashing lord reminded the widow that the lure of sharing a warm bed on a winter’s night might indeed be worth the risks.
Lord Winn had trusted one woman and been betrayed. That disastrous marriage had endowed him with a wariness of females in general, and prospective wives in particular. But when the door to the dower house on one of his estates was opened by a woman with a cautious smile and memorable brown eyes, he knew here was danger to avoid at all costs — if he really wanted to…
What worked for me (and what didn’t): I haven’t read a lot of historical romance lately and much of that is to do with my mood. So when I do read a HR book and I love it, I think it says something. Not quite that it starts in negative territory, but that it has to scale a divide between my expectations (of “meh”) and reality. It has to change my mind. This book succeeded by page 2. (Literally, I was on a plane, wiping my eyes because there were tears – on page 2!!!)
Roxanna Drew is a widow with two young daughters. Her beloved husband Anthony had been the local vicar and he had died after a long and unspecified illness. She has been allowed to stay in the vicarage for six months but she knows that she and her children will have to move and leave behind the memories they all have of Anthony in that place. The set up is so well done. The brush strokes so deft, that in no time at all, I was empathising with Roxanna. She doesn’t spend much time wallowing and mired in grief – I admired her right from the start (I expect I would wallow, get stuck and stay there), because she tells herself to buck up and get on with things for the sake of her girls. Her philosophy and the book’s title are explained thusly:
She leaned against the windowpane, and thought of the everlasting card games she had played with her brothers when they were growing up in Kent. They showed her no mercy, compelling her to play terrible hands to the end, instead of folding the cards and running away to her dolls. At first she cried and complained to Mama, but then she learned to play the hand dealt to her. Sometimes she won, sometimes she lost, but she never threw down a hand dealt again.
Her brother-in-law is Lord Whitcomb, the local magistrate and a man well regarded in the district. He offers Roxanna and her daughters a home but there is a catch. She is also to be his mistress. While she does miss sex (she’s quite frank to herself about this), she does not want to be Marshall Whitcomb’s mistress – both because ew, brother-in-law and because of her own moral rectitude. She becomes convinced (likely with good cause) that Marshall will reduce her stipend so as to force her to accept his offer and she takes steps to thwart him. The nearby estate of Moreland has a crumbling dower house and an absent landlord. She negotiates with a sympathetic bailiff to rent the dower house and determines to renovate the place herself, if only the bailiff will arrange for the roof and windows to be repaired.
Fletcher Rand, Lord Winn has returned from the war, it finally being over with the success at Waterloo. He is not received in society because he had the “poor taste” to seek a divorce from his cheating-cheatypants wife and parade her lovers through Parliament to so gain their decree. His now remarried ex-wife is received but he is not. (How messed up is that?). Nevertheless, he is plagued by one of his younger sisters to remarry and beget heirs and by the other younger sister to remain single (because her son is currently his heir and she likes it that way) and his elder sister tries to keep the peace. Winn (as he likes to be called) determines to tour his various holdings so as to get away from the meddlesome lot of them and he ends up at Moreland in the early hours of a snowy morning, where he is very surprised to find that Roxanna Drew is not old and most certainly not ugly.
Winn has said repeatedly and he continues to do so for much of the book (at least out loud) that he will not remarry and he does not wish to sire children. But he does completely fall for Roxanna’s daughters, Felicity and Helen. These girls are not plot moppets, they have distinct personality, their own relationship with Winn and they are not always well-behaved angels either. Winn also comes to admire and love Roxanna – she is brave, stalwart, honest, kind, beautiful, intelligent and loyal. Winn thinks (with some good reason based on society’s view of him) that Roxanna would never deign to marry him and he almost succeeds in convincing himself it is not possible.
Winn is very perceptive and he notices things keenly.
While Cynthia’s fashionable slimness was due to a daunting regiment of vinegar and boiled potatoes that used to take away his own appetite, Roxie Drew was thin because she worked too hard, slept too little, worried too much and wasn’t loved sufficiently.
When there is a threat to the custody of her girls however, Roxanna’s only solution is marriage to Lord Winn. It is to be a marriage of convenience of course. And, of course, it doesn’t. They still have a long way to go to get their HEA however. The conflict at the end, while I suppose it was technically in keeping with both of their characters, felt a titch contrived to me and I didn’t like Winn’s high-handedness regarding Marshall Whitcomb (although I have more to say about this I will do it under a spoiler tag).
The book doesn’t close the door at the bedroom, but don’t be expecting anything remotely explicit. Nevertheless, their courtship and close friendship, the dual POV which shows mutual attraction, particularly on the part of Winn, made this a very satisfying read for me. The intimacy factor was very high.
For those who have already read the book, here are my thoughts about Lord Whitcomb:
What else? There were a few words/phrases which felt anachronistic to me and if I notice them, I figure they must be pretty glaring. The most obvious was a reference to “fanny” in the US context of the word. In the UK (while it was not used in 1817) it means ladyparts – in the US it means bottom and they’re really quite quite different. (A US “fanny pack” will cause an Australian or Brit to smirk (possibly only if they’re juvenile) and over here at least, it’s called a “bum bag”). There were a couple of other things which felt either American or too modern or both. I noticed them but overall, it didn’t detract greatly from my enjoyment of the story.
Winn is a bit of a beta hero – while he does do a bit of high-handed managing in the book, he’s unashamed in his emotions – with good reason he has caused to shed tears a few times in the book. He saw and endured some terrible deprivations in the war and while it wasn’t a huge focus in the story, I had the strong impression that he was still coming to grips with war and its effects.
I loved the characters and the writing style and by the end of the book, I was convinced that Winn and Roxie would have a long and happy marriage. I adored that Anthony was not demonised. He was beloved by his widow and daughters and Winn was only ever grateful to Anthony for the care he took of his family and the calibre of man he was. Winn and Anthony were different men and Roxanna was, frankly, a different woman than the girl Anthony married – so there was never any kind of competition. I also liked that it was clear that Roxie and Anthony enjoyed an active and healthy sex life (before his illness at least) and that Roxie wished to experience that kind of intimacy again was never shaming in the narrative.
I loved Mrs. Drew Plays Her Hand so much (there was something very Mary Balogh-esque about it), I immediately went and bought two other Carla Kelly’s to try and repeat the experience.