Carrie Lofty does in Starlight, the second book in her Christie series. Yes this story takes place Scotland, hardly a new setting in historical romance circles. That being said, we have a late Victorian era backdrop, when Glasgow was dominated by ship yards and textile mills. That's right folks, we're talking industrial revolution, women and children working in factories, and labor union agitation.
Alex Christie is an astronomer, a man who looks to the stars. Then his father dies, and leaves all four of his children a task to complete if they have any hopes of getting their one million dollar inheritance. Alex's job is to turn around a failing textile factory in Glasgow. He's all set to tell Dad's solicitor to sod off, when his father-in-law comes calling. An evil, vile man, Alex married Mamie in part to save her from the scumbag. Mamie died in childbirth, and baby Edmund has not been the heartiest of infants. Now Josiah is threatening to take Edmund. Alex has no choice, he needs the money to fight Josiah and the only way to get that money is to jump through his father's hoops.
Polly Gowan is the only daughter of a famed union leader. With her brothers working on the docks, when her father becomes too ill to continue working at Christie Textiles, Polly pretty much becomes de facto head of the union. It is not an easy position to be in, and it gets harder when someone sets off an explosive device at the factory. Now the new master, Alex Christie, wants answers and he takes one look at Polly and thinks she can provide them. She can, but she has to play things pretty close to the vest.
Naturally what follows is Polly and Alex working together - sort of. They both want to find answers behind the factory sabotage. Alex needs to turn things around to claim his inheritance, thereby defeating his father-in-law. Polly wants answers in hopes that the other textile masters won't use this latest development to continue to treat their workers like crap. These are two people who want two very different things, and for that reason there is an exorbitant amount of tension and bickering in this book.
I've read stubborn heroines before, but they were all mere amateurs compared to Polly. Granted, one understands why she is so combative with Alex. You grow up poor in Scotland where your only means of meager survival is sitting at a loom all day, in dangerous conditions, for pennies, while your employer has no concern for your welfare, safety, health or the fact that maybe you want more out of your life than just making him money. Sure Alex is the new guy in charge, but there is nothing in Polly's past or current existence that makes her think that this guy is going to be any different from the ones that came before him.
Alex may be the eldest son of a self-made man, an industrialist who pulled himself up by his bootstraps from the very area where Polly lives, but he's an intellectual. He's not a businessman, but he has to become one in order to keep his son safe. And make no mistake, Alex has a protective streak wider than the ocean that separates Scotland from his home in New York City. Mamie's life was destroyed by her father. Even marrying Alex didn't bring her peace. No way in hell is Alex going to let that man destroy his child.
Polly is a very different sort of heroine from Lofty, who has written several books featuring quiet, buttoned-up women concerned with propriety and safety. Polly is working-class. She's not naive. She's a fighter. Alex is a man who desperately wanted to save his wife, but couldn't. So yes, he was married - but in a lot of ways he's still a little green in the ways of passion. His feelings for Polly, his need for her, are totally foreign to him.
This is a romance that gets better towards the end of the book. The couple's combative natures brought to mind Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. That is to say, a relationship built entirely around fighting and make-up sex. Passionate, exciting, but not exactly the sort of thing that screams longevity. After a while, it made me a little weary. I understood why they were combative. I totally got that. But seriously, it wore me down. Luckily the final chapters, which includes the unmasking of the factory saboteur, helped calm my concerns. That stress resolved, I think Polly and Alex just might be able to be married, and stay in the same room for more than 5 minutes together, before they start arguing with each other.
Unlike Flawless that included quite a bit of "business stuff," Starlight plays more on the romance and conflict between the characters than it does Alex turning the factory around. Which I suspect will suit most readers just fine, although I would have liked a tiny bit more of that. I'm not sure how that could have been accomplished without padding the story, but it would have been nice to see exactly how Alex and Polly got to the final chapter of the book.
I didn't like this one quite as much as Flawless, but this is the book where I think the author firmly sets roots for her series. Being the eldest son, Alex's relationship with his father is interesting, and we get some more insight into the man who, instead of just leaving his children a giant pile of money, tasked them all with various missions to earn their inheritance.
This is a good, solid book and so breathlessly different from nearly every other historical romance that's been released in recent memory. The industrial setting, the working class heroine, and a slice of history that romance readers don't always see because we're stuck at a house party, Almack's or out in the middle of the prairie. This has been a really intriguing series so far, don't miss it.
Final Grade = B