How to Entice an Earl
By Manda Collins
Publisher: St. Martin’s
Release Date: January 29, 2013
Lady Madeline Essex is feeling a bit lonely since her cousins, Cecily (How to Dance with a Duke) and Juliet (How to Romance a Rake) have begun living their happily ever afters, but even so, she herself is not quite ready for matrimony. There are things she hopes to accomplish first, foremost among them, completing her first novel. In pursuit of that goal, she uses a bit of sibling blackmail to persuade her brother to escort her to Mrs. Bailey’s, a gambling hell frequented by gentlemen looking for high stakes games and ladies not overly concerned with their reputations. Maddy is not at all happy to discover that the Earl of Gresham is in attendance as well, but she has reason to be grateful to him when she stumbles upon a dying man and the brother who abandoned her at such a moment becomes a prime suspect.
Christian Monteith, still unaccustomed to his new status as the Earl of Gresham, is at Mrs. Bailey’s on a mission for the Home Office because of suspicions that the murdered man and others, including Madeline Essex’s brother, may be involved in a radical organization. He’s furious to see Lady Madeline there, but his concern over her being touched with scandal soon takes second place to his concern over her safety. He’s about to learn that Maddy is not willing to retire to the sidelines while men solve the crime. She may cry in Gresham’s arms in a closed carriage, but she’s soon stubbornly, infuriatingly planning her own investigation.
As Maddy and Gresham work together to find a killer, with Maddy determined to prove her brother’s innocence and Gresham determined to protect Maddy, the simmering attraction between them intensifies at a rate that catches them both by surprise. But they also become friends who talk to one another, who laugh together. Gresham, who is burdened by guilt over his twin sister’s suicide while he was out of the country fighting the French, understands Maddy’s need to help her younger brother. He even sympathizes with her frustration over the strictures society imposes on women. Neither one is willing to call it love, but it’s clear that these two are falling hard for one another. However, there’s still a killer on the loose, one who is all too willing to interfere with their HEA.
How to Entice an Earl is the final novel in Manda Collins’s Ugly Ducklings trilogy. Like its predecessors, it weaves mystery and romance together in a fine balance. The action centers on the mystery, which also serves as a catalyst for the relationship between Maddy and Gresham. But the focus is squarely on the romance, and the reader is privileged to see the romantic relationship develop in a manner that involves humor, a deepening emotional intimacy, and plenty of sizzle.
Maddy’s outspokenness, her courage, her loyalty, and above all, her determination not to be defined by her parents’ disappointment in her or society’s expectations of her make her an engaging heroine. She is also surprisingly sensible despite her determination to fight her own battles. I especially appreciated her recognition, even before she understands that she loves Gresham, that they must marry. She may resent the limitations her world imposes on women of her class, but she recognizes there are boundaries she cannot transgress without giving up more than she's willing to forfeit and without hurting those she loves. She also knows Gresham and values the man that he is. She believes they can build a life together even though she thinks she will miss the love match her cousins enjoy.
She had come to appreciate his sense of the absurd as much as his strength and loyalty. Who would wish to be tied to a man who never laughed, she wondered, leaping ahead to what she knew this interview was truly about. Not their well-being or their absurdity, but their marriage.
I was ready to cheer aloud when on their wedding day Maddy learns something that could have become a Misunderstanding of Great Proportions. But Maddy proves how well she knows her man by rejecting the obvious and intuiting the truth. How rare is that in romance?
And Gresham! I’ll always think of him as Monteith because he was not yet the Earl of Gresham when I first encountered him in manuscript form and fell in love with his humor, his disdain for fashion, his kindness, and his sense of honor. I waited impatiently for his story, and he proved to be the hero I expected.
If you haven’t met the Ugly Ducklings, what are you waiting for? How to Entice an Earl can certainly be read as a standalone, and you can begin with it--although I’ll be surprised if you don’t find the cousins and their heroes so appealing that you’ll want to read their stories too. I highly recommend all three books.
The Big Misunderstanding is a classic romance trope that operates across all subgenres. Some readers love it. Others hate it. I admit I fall in the latter camp and, thus, was thrilled that Maddy avoids the Big Mis. I’ve seen misunderstandings work, but far more often, they leave me wondering how people who don’t talk to one another expect to create a life together. What is your opinion of the Big Mis?