Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Lady Of Shame

Earlier this month I read and reviewed The Lady Who Broke The Rules by Marguerite Kaye, the third book in Harlequin's Castonbury Park continuity series.  I liked that story very much, and came to read it by way of a trade paperback 2-in-1 reprint (the series has been getting released as digital first here in North America), Ladies of Disrepute.  With a reprint title like that, it's only fitting that Kaye's story was packaged with Lady Of Shame by Ann Lethbridge, which also happens to be book four in the series.  Just like Kaye's story, it does feature some continuity conflict that carries over the entire series, but it also stands alone very well.

Lady Claire has come home, hat in hand, with no other options.  Her half-brother is the imposing elder Duke, and while there is quite an age difference between them (same father, different mothers), Crispin had always been kind to her.  Well, that is, until she disobeyed him and eloped with her now dead husband.  She was in love (of course) and naturally the whole affair ended in complete disaster (of course).  Her husband was nothing more than a grubby fortune hunter, a gambler and a wastrel.  Lady Claire has fallen far indeed, and her husband's death has created a new problem.  One that requires her to go home and beg forgiveness if she wants to keep her 7-year-old daughter, Jane, safe.

In residence at Castonbury Park is Monsieur Andre, a talented French chef whose culinary imagination is slowly withering in the stifling country atmosphere.  The Duke is so sickly and heartsick over the death of his eldest son he barely leaves his rooms.  There are no dinner parties to plan, no guests to dazzle with his cuisine, but the job pays well and it's the money he's really after, with dreams of one day opening up his own hotel in London.  When Claire arrives, with her delightful daughter in tow, he knows he's in trouble.  He is captivated by her sad eyes, charmed by the young miss Jane, and no!  No, this will not do.  He escaped France after the revolution and Napoleon.  The last thing he needs is to dally well above his station with a disgraced young widow who is determined to do the right thing in order to help herself, her daughter and her brother.  That is to say, she's going to remarry - and this time a man her brother would actually endorse.

Of course we all know where this is going.  Claire and Andre are immediately drawn to each other, although there is quite a bit of tap-dancing around the attraction.  Claire may have been ruined, but she's still the sister of a Duke.  It also doesn't change the fact that Andre grew up on the streets of Paris, worked his way up the ranks of the French Army, and initially only became a chef after he realized that chef's not only prepare food, they also tend to get fed.  After the insecurity of not knowing when you'll eat next, throwing a toque on your head and learning to cook is a small challenge indeed.  Besides that, Andre has a real talent with food.

I love Regencies of this sort because it showcases so beautifully how desperate life could be (and was) for women in the 19th century.  Certainly Claire is privileged, but even that won't save a woman when either she 1) makes a bad decision or 2) has a bad decision made for her "own good."  Arriving home to Castonbury Park she is legitimately fearful that the Duke could throw her out on her ass, and there's not a damn thing she could do about it.  So naturally she'll do just about anything to keep him happy, herself and her daughter safe.  So while she doesn't want to remarry?  She doesn't have a lot of options.  OK, she has no options.  None.

An attraction with the chef, one of the hired help, is not only disastrous for her, but it does nothing but reinforce the idea that she's a wanton woman with the most abominable judgement - even if, as the reader, we know that Andre is a great guy.  He is, also, a scared guy.  A man who is haunted by his life in France, and a man who came to England not only to make a name for himself but because England is safe.  These are two people who, after pasts lived in some dire circumstances, value safety quite a bit.

I really enjoyed this story tremendously.  It had a great upstairs/downstairs vibe, I loved the "ruined" heroine and I loved the fact that I got a hero who actually had a job.  Even better?  The romance is a passionate slow build and believable.  I believe that these two people could fall in love and live happily ever after.  Claire has sand and Andre is totally captivated by her.  I can imagine them taking the finicky ton diners by storm.....

Final Grade = B+

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