Rumors That Ruined A Lady by Marguerite Kaye is the fourth book in her Armstrong Sisters series and now is quite possibly my favorite. The first two sisters were whisked off to Arabia to marry handsome sheikhs. The third sister completely ruined herself by falling head over heels with an Italian painter and ran off to live blissfully happily-ever-after on the Continent. Next in line is Caroline "Caro" Armstrong, long believed to be the obedient sister. The girls' distant, emotionally neglectful father is a diplomat who is always looking to work the angles. Now that he's remarried and his new wife has been doing her duty for King and country by squirting out baby boys - well, that means Lord Armstrong just wants to get his bothersome girls married off - preferably to men who will advance his own political standing. The previous three girls proved very tiresome, but Caro? It was always believed that Caro would do the right thing and marry the man her father hand picks for her.
Which she does, mores the pity, because that's how we as readers are introduced to her in the prologue. Tossed out on her ear, with her husband spreading malicious rumors of her infidelity, and her former next door neighbor, Sebastian Conway, Marquis of Ardhallow finding her nearly overdosed on opium at house party.
Caro and Sebastian go way back. While an heir to one of the oldest titles in England, and technically "a catch" - Sebastian has a wicked reputation. A reputation he has largely cultivated to get back at his own emotionally distant, cold father. They tap-dance around each other, but given her ingrained sense of duty to please her father and his completely unsuitable reputation? It's not shocking that Caro ends up married to her rat-bastard husband and Sebastian carries on for a few years, flitting about the Continent before his father's death calls him home to take over the title and estate. He's positively shocked to find Caro in the state that she's in, and without his intervention, she could very well end up dead from an overdose. So he does probably the best and worst possible thing for her and her reputation. He takes her back to his home.
A good portion of this story is told in flashbacks, which I would normally consider one part fool's errand and another part the devil's playground. Flashbacks are tricky things, and are much easier to muck up than pull off - but pull them off Kaye does. It's really a good way to unfold this story, especially since we come into the whole affair with Caro already having left her husband. As one could imagine, this does not do much for her reputation and it takes just a few whispers for her to fall very far indeed. The flashbacks are utilized to unfold how Caro and Sebastian first met and how Caro comes to be married to another man. It alternates back and forth in time in this manner until around the second half, when the flashbacks give way entirely to present day (in this case, present day being early-1830s).
The action in the story is mostly quiet, with Caro and Sebastian's internal angst mainly driving our story. However the author tackles the very tricky subject of Caro still being married to her rat-bastard husband and her options when it comes to extricating herself from that union. Here's the short answer: none of them are good. Even though the man is swine, it's not as if divorcing him would favor her, let alone be easy even if she was able to pull it off. The author does a good job of getting inside Caro's head, dealing with the pressures that someone in her situation would unenviably have faced, and in the end, resolves it all in a satisfactory manner - which given the historical facts of separation and divorce in the 19th century is not an easy feat!
It's a lovely angst-filled read featuring two emotionally damaged characters. Sebastian has both Mommy and Daddy Issues, while Caro feels the pressure to return to a husband who frankly should be locked up in Newgate and a father who really has no regard for her person whatsoever. As the reader we know that Caro and Sebastian will eventually find a way to be together (hey, it's a romance!), but this is one of those books where you really do wonder "How the hell is the author going to pull a rabbit out of this hat?!?!"
It's a great emotional, angst-filled historical romance - something I'm a total sucker for. And oh goodie - we've got one more Armstrong sister to look forward to!
Final Grade = B+