There is a segment of the romance reading population that is very discerning when it comes to Regency historicals. I like to call these fine folks The Old Guard. Those readers who cut their teeth on sweet traditional Regencies, know the era better than current events, and get rather annoyed when the history is "off" in historical romances. Reading Vanessa Kelly's second book, Sex And The Single Earl, had me thinking of these readers quite a bit. While there are elements in this story that hit all the right notes, there were other elements that felt...off.
Simon St. James, the Earl of Trask, is fascinated by business, numbers and math - much to his family's horror. He has designs on cornering the wool market, and has even had an architect draw up plans for some textile mills. The problem? His chief investor is concerned about Simon's ability to get his hands on the necessary fuel to run the factories. In this case? Coal. The Stanton family is sitting on some coal rich land, and Simon figures he can lease it from them. That is, until the land is tossed in as dowry for Miss Sophie Stanton. Well, bother. He's known her since she was a girl - always pulling her out of one scrape or another. He's certainly fond of her, and they were practically raised together. The idea of marrying her is hardly repulsive, and besides? He needs that coal.
Sophie is entering her fourth season and is very close to being on the shelf. The girl just doesn't know how to play the game. Couple that with her knack of finding trouble and the fact that she's been hopelessly in love with Simon for years? Yeah, it's not a surprise she's still unmarried. But what will happen when she finds out that Simon, the man she's been carrying a torch for, only wants to marry her for her land? And what will Simon's reaction be when his intended bride keeps getting into scrapes that scandalize the ton?
What we have here is most definitely a mixed bag. Having read my fair share of historicals over the years that feature heroines constantly getting into trouble, I read this book waiting for the other shoe to drop. Sophie toes the line for pretty much the whole book, and maybe I am getting soft in my old age, but she never completely went off the deep end into Too Stupid To Live territory for me. It helped that the girl's heart is always in the right place, and that most of her impetuous behavior can be explained away by her reacting to situations (for example: chasing after the thief who swipes her reticule while she's walking through the streets of Bath).
Simon is a bit of a cold fish. One of those exacting Regency heroes feeling the pressure of family obligation, his title, and society. He abhors scandal, and Sophie's knack for finding it tends to throw a wrench in his life. Over the course of the story he threatens to spank her, or lock her away in a closet, on more than one occasion. Essentially, he wishes he could control her. Keep her in line. With heroes of this ilk, the reader just has to wait him out for that moment when he realizes he doesn't want to control the heroine, that he's breathlessly in love with her, and wouldn't change a thing about her for all the tea in China. The problem here is that I never warmed up to Simon. Sophie does whine that he treats her like a child (which, at times, she totally deserves), but I also found myself agreeing with her when she thunders at him that she doesn't need a Daddy or another older brother - she needs a husband who loves her.
Simon's desire to marry to further his business dealings, along with the descriptions of ton society in Bath, all have the requisite Regency sparkle. The author also throws in some grit in the form of two children that Sophie desires to save from an abusive father. On the flip side though, there are the love scenes which never gelled for me. The timing of the first one was rather troublesome, with an inebriated Sophie throwing herself at Simon, not giving her virginity so much as a by-your-leave. And given Simon's consuming desire to get his hands on Sophie's land, her deflowering reeked of a half-baked plan to bring her to heel. Like I said, troublesome.
Finally, the author keeps the conflict churning along thanks to an Evil Ex-Mistress. I think every romance reader has at least one trope, that no matter how well-written, just doesn't work for them anymore. The Evil Other Woman/Ex-Mistress/Ex-Wife is one of mine. This is hardly the author's fault. I've DNF'ed books by favorite authors because of this trope. This one is all on me.
In the end what I'm left with is the writing, which is crisp and clean, and a heroine that I liked, despite her tendency to get into trouble. On the downside, I never warmed up to the hero, the love scenes felt off, and the Evil Ex-Mistress is admittedly an issue for me. I wasn't bowled over by this story, but I also wasn't greatly annoyed by it either. Like I said, mixed bag.
Final Grade = C