Why I read it: I’ve been hearing about this book since way before it’s release with big raps for it from Sarah Wendell (Smart Bitches Trashy Books) and Jane Litte (Dear Author) – initially on their DBSA podcasts. After it’s release I bought it fairly quickly but it stayed on my TBR. I think I was worried it wouldn’t live up to the hype. Anyway, I recently decided to bite the bullet.
Did it live up to the hype? Yes. Yes it did.
What it’s about:
(blurb from Goodreads) Newly widowed and desperate to protect her estate and beloved servants from her malevolent brother-in-law, Martha Russell conceives a daring plan. Or rather, a daring plan to conceive. After all, if she has an heir on the way, her future will be secured. Forsaking all she knows of propriety, Martha approaches her neighbor, a London exile with a wicked reputation, and offers a strictly business proposition: a month of illicit interludes . . . for a fee.
Theophilus Mirkwood ought to be insulted. Should be appalled. But how can he resist this siren in widow’s weeds, whose offer is simply too outrageously tempting to decline? Determined she’ll get her money’s worth, Theo endeavors to awaken this shamefully neglected beauty to the pleasures of the flesh—only to find her dead set against taking any enjoyment in the scandalous bargain. Surely she can’t resist him forever. But could a lady’s sweet surrender open their hearts to the most unexpected arrival of all . . . love?
What worked for me (and what didn’t): This is a delightful book. The writing is tight, witty, at times beautiful, and spare in a way that is reminiscent of Mary Balogh, while being completely the author’s own. Martha is uptight and somewhat cool. Theo is the one who’s all open joie de vivre. He has quite low expectations of himself but it isn’t really that difficult for Martha and Mr. Granville (Theo’s steward) to get him interested in land and tenant management. He’s young (26) and he’s been idle and profligate but he’s basically a kind person – he has a heart made of marshmallow. He falters a little in the delivery sometimes but he learns from his mistakes and he has the best of intentions once he’s on the right track. His character growth felt entirely realistic to me. Theo is also very funny.
He considered her words as she poured. Also, he considered the view down her bodice.
With an efficiency only to be gained through much practice, he shucked his clothes. “You may turn over again if you like.” She did, and looked at him, and looked away, just as she would if she’d been foolish enough to gaze straight at the sun, or at one of those gods a mortal could not bear to behold. Apollo, or someone. Mercury. Whichever was the broadest-shouldered and most generously equipped.
As you can see, Theo does not suffer from poor self esteem. 🙂
Theo has a charisma which means that he can persuade almost anyone to do almost anything and he once he turns that charm on the challenges of good stewardship of his land instead of on getting laid, he’s a force to be reckoned with. For example, Martha has a passion for education and is keen on getting the children of the district educated, including the girls. Consider Theo’s sales pitch to a young shepherdess, which succeeds where Martha has spectacularly failed.
“Very good,” he nodded at the shepherdess. “You look like a reader of sturdy constitution. You must read this novel and tell me whether there’s good story in between all the accurate and elevating parts. I’m afraid those virtues are a kind of poison to me, and I need some other reader to go before, like one of those fellows who tastes the king’s suppers.”
Martha on the other hand is all about duty which made her seem, to me, to be much older than her 21 years. She read as about 30/35 in ‘regency years” sometimes and I had to keep reminding myself that she was younger than Theo. At least in part I think this was deliberate on the author’s part as there are times when Theo has to remind himself of the same thing. From Theo she learns to make friends (something she had not heretofore been able to do) and to relax and enjoy life a bit. When she combines the force of nature that is her will with a few smiles, she gets a lot further than she expects. She and Theo make a fairly awesome team in fact. The parts of the book where they are engaging with their respective tenants were very well done and somewhat surprisingly, very entertaining.
From Martha, Theo learns about duty and responsibility but he also learns that pleasuring a woman can be done without sex and as he falls in love with Martha and as she will not accept physical pleasure (more on that later) from him, he longs to give Martha pleasure she will accept. He finds a strange joy in pleasing her with his business ideas.
Her smile went through him like a fever-chill. What a strange, strange thing to give a woman such pleasure without touching her.
If only she’d inoculated him with more frequent smiles, he would not lose all his conversation.
Such tricky business, being a husband. Knowing when to be your wife’s champion, and when to stand back that she might be her own. So many large and small skills to master beyond simply pleasuring a woman in bed. Yet one more unexpected lesson from his time in Sussex.
I only would have wanted a little more exposition at the end of the story. It’s no surprise that Martha and Theo fall in love and want to be together. Martha has formed a plan so that she will get a baby one way or another even if she has to pay for one from a poor tenant. She can’t be with Theo and say that the baby is her late husband’s. She can’t save Seton Park if she goes off with Theo and lives HEA. The dilemma is solved fairly neatly in that the specific problem is not who owns the land but that she doesn’t want her evil brother-in-law anywhere near it (he’s a rapist). Once that has occurred however, Martha is still newly widowed and for her to be with Theo creates its own uproar which didn’t seem fully resolved to me. It was like, having solved one problem, the cat was amongst the pigeons and the book ended, while the brawl was still ongoing. I would have liked to have seen that bit resolved too.
However, in the big scheme that is a fairly small niggle and I believe we will see more of Theo and Martha in future books and maybe, if we’re lucky, a Christmas short or something (*hint Cecilia Grant hint*).
What else? Martha does not enjoy (at least initially) and does not want to enjoy Theo’s physical attentions. She feels to take pleasure in sex with Theo would make her actions worse than to ‘suffer’ them. There is some nobility in suffering for a cause (keeping the females on the estate safe from the attentions of the evil brother-in-law). Were she to enjoy their encounters, she feels she can make no claim to nobility. Of course, Martha is a woman and when she first has sex with Theo she doesn’t know him at all. It is not to be expected that she would enjoy such attentions initially anyway. One of the things which struck me about the early part of Martha and Theo’s physical relationship is that there is a certain role reversal present. By that, I mean it is Theo who, by virtue of regularly giving Martha “his seed” finds himself emotionally entangled – Martha herself is not wooed so much by the physical as by the man she comes to know and the man Theo comes to be. There is physical attraction on her part certainly, but I’m convinced she would have continued to find him eminently resistible if not for her growing attraction to the rest of him. Typically, a man can “love ’em and leave ’em” and typically physical intimacy breeds emotional intimacy in a woman. Martha and Theo however, are far from typical and this is just one of the ways they were not only engaging and fun, but interesting to read about.
The contrast of Martha’s dry wit and removed sensibility with Theo’s open and lusty nature was also fun and these two certainly heat up the sheets as their relationship develops.
“Always. Use me, Martha.” His voice invited her into unspeakable things. “Ride me until you’ve got your seed, and then take your pleasure from my mouth.”
Well. Apparently not unspeakable, to him.
“But I find one man might differ in significant ways from another.”
“One might have a larger appendage, you mean.”
“That’s not at all what I meant.” The corners of her lips twitched nonetheless. “Though, I’m sure you’ll be gratified to know you do best my late husband in that arena.”
“Darling, I best most men there.”