By Elizabeth Rolls
Publisher: Harlequin UK
Release Date: November 4, 2011
Regency Marriages is a reissue of two of Elizabeth Rolls’s Harlequin Historicals under a single title: A Compromised Lady (Harlequin Historical #864, September 2007) and Lord Braybrook’s Penniless Bride (Harlequin Historical #948, June 2009). I first read Rolls in a Christmas anthology in 2006. As often happens with anthologies, I bought Mistletoe Kisses (2006)because it included a novella “A Twelfth Night Tale” by Diane Gaston, but I also loved Rolls’s story “A Soldier’s Tale” and began looking for her novels. While I like some of her books better than others, I have found her consistently to give her readers enjoyable stories that tweak some of the cherished conventions of the genre. I enjoyed rereading these connected novels.
A Compromised Lady features a heroine who is neither an innocent debutante nor a courtesan by circumstance, design, or confusion. Dorothea “Thea” Winslow is banished from polite society to her aunt’s home in Yorkshire where she remains for eight years. She’s not even allowed to return when her mother dies. Then, one day Thea's brother shows up unexpectedly with orders from her father that she is to return to London for the Season. Circumstances have changed, and it is time for Thea to be married. Thea has no desire for a London Season or for a husband, but she has little choice but to obey her father. Her only solace is that she will be the guest of her godmother, Lady Arnsworth, rather than being forced to stay in her father’s house.
Lady Arnsworth manipulates events so that her favorite nephew, Mr. Richard Blakehurst, is also a guest in her home. She thinks Richard deserves the title that belongs to his slightly older twin brother (Max, Earl of Blakehurst, hero of His Lady Mistress). She can’t give the title to her favorite, but she can see that he has a fortune by throwing him and Thea, who has inherited a fortune from her uncle, into each other’s company.
Richard and Thea were childhood friends, and he has fond memories of the lively girl she was then. But the Thea he meets seems so radically changed that he hardly knows her. It takes time to reestablish their friendship. Richard is ready to take a wife, having observed his brother’s happiness, and although he’s not interested in marrying a woman for her money, he soon comes to believe that Thea will be the perfect bride. But Thea is determined never to marry, and even Richard’s best efforts may not be enough to change her mind.
Both these characters are atypical. Richard lacks not only a title but also a reputation as a rake. Lame from a childhood riding accident, he is a scholar, eager to return to his estate in Kent. He is also honorable, chivalrous, and irresistible as he falls in love with Thea, all the while insisting he is guided by reason rather than passion. It took me longer to like Thea. She evokes sympathy from the beginning, and as her past is revealed, sympathy increases. The secrets of her past are very dark indeed, and Rolls reveals the horrors of that sixteenth spring in puzzle pieces, denying the reader the full story until late in the novel. But I wanted to see Thea be more than her past, and I saw only glimpses of what she was beyond that. But in the end she acts with courage and conviction, and she is rewarded with an HEA larger than her dreams.
Julian Trentham, Lord Braybrook, is a friend of Richard’s and of Thea’s brother, David, in A Compromised Lady. He is the hero of Lord Braybrook’s Penniless Bride. He is a rake with a difference, or rather with five differences. He is responsible for his invalid stepmother, two half-brothers, and two half-sisters. A caring, affectionate guardian, he wants the best for all of them. When seventeen-year-old Alicia falls in love with the questionable Harry Daventry, Braybrook investigates and discovers Harry’s sister, Christiana, about to be evicted from her home. He quickly decides that offering Miss Daventry a position as companion to his stepmother and governess to his siblings will show Alicia what life would be like for a woman dependent upon Daventry.
Predictably Julian comes to admire Christy’s independence and outspokenness, and she begins to see him as more than an arrogant aristocrat. Both are likeable characters, and their relationship is credible and endearing. They, for the most part, behave logically and in keeping with who they are as individuals and who they are in the realities of the time period. The secondary characters are vividly and realistically drawn. Julian’s stepmother is an admirably practical woman with a sense of humor, Alicia behaves like a seventeen-year-old, and young Davy is mischievous without being precocious. Harry is a testament to the harm that can be created by the weak and selfish.
Most impressive is the rich vein of realism that Rolls inserts into the story: Christy’s precarious position as a woman with few resources, the contrast between the privation she has known and the luxuries that are taken for granted by the Trenthams, the stigma of illegitimacy that Christy and Harry bear, even though they are the bastard offspring of a duke, and the prejudices that are deeply ingrained in Julian. If the last chapters of the book feel rushed and inadequately developed, and they do, this nevertheless remains a book worth reading for many reasons.
Do you have an author whose books you never miss that you discovered in an anthology? Who are your favorite characters who are different from the heroes and heroines you usually find in romance?