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Willaful Review: A Most Unconventional Match by Julia Justiss

matchSensuality rating: Steamy

A huge, inarticulate guy who’s shy with women — how could I not want to read more about Hal Waterman, after he was introduced in The Wedding Gamble?

Hal is instantly smitten with his best friend Nicky’s new sister-in-law, Elizabeth — which is why he instantly runs. The son of a noted ton beauty, he has no interest in having yet another selfish, demanding woman in his life. Besides, such an exquisite woman could never be interested in a big lout like him.

But when Elizabeth is widowed seven years later, at a time when Nicky’s entire family is abroad, Hall feels obligated to offer his assistance.  He finds her sorely in need of help, since she’s been cherished and protected her entire married life — including being protected from the fact that her husband was terrible at managing money. Hal takes on the role of helpful family friend while sternly admonishing himself not to consider being anything more. He has no idea that Elizabeth’s artist’s eye is fascinated by his unfashionably muscular body and handsome profile.

This book is all about the characters — in fact, every time the plot seems to be going to a possibly exciting or scary place, the issue is resolved fairly quickly.  Being an angst-whore, I thought that a bit of a shame, but it’s a charming story regardless, because Hal and Elizabeth are worthy characters going through interesting changes.

Everything we see about Hal shows how intelligent, competent and admirable he is — including a touching scene in which his warmhearted mistress urges him to leave her and follow his heart, despite the fact that she obviously adores him. Trust Hal to have a sweet, genuine mistress! (And I wish the poor woman had her own happy ending.) Hal might seem almost too perfect if it weren’t for his genuine trouble with speaking. Because of a childhood stutter, he’s learned to concentrate on the most important idea he’s trying to convey; his elliptical speech drops most articles and pronouns in a way that can make him appear cloddish. He’s also generally at a loss in an argument, because his brain outruns his ability to speak.

Elizabeth’s character is also sympathetic — she’s not a fool, but she’s been sheltered for so long, she has trouble finding her feet and knowing who to trust.  One of the lovely things about the story is that though Hal is only to happy to advise and protect Elizabeth, he also respects her talent and encourages her to live a life beyond being a proper, helpless lady. Elizabeth blossoms to the point that, in the end, she seduces him — pretending to want to paint him, she persuades him to strip. I was charmed by how the ladylike Elizabeth is so entranced by Hal’s body, she can’t stop herself from staring and touching. It also shows how she’s gained confidence in her ability to make decisions, and learned to trust her own feelings.

My gut is sort of leaning towards a 3 1/2 rating for this because of the overall lack of tension, but I’m going with a 4 because it’s unusual and thematically interesting.  It’s no longer in print but easy to find used, or you can buy it for Kindle here.

Published by Harlequin. Review copy purchased by me.

Willaful Review: The Lady Who Broke the Rules by Marguerite Kaye


Sensuality Rating: Surprisingly Steamy

I’m not sure which surprises me more: a Harlequin Historical featuring an interracial romance, or a Harlequin Historical featuring juicy sex.  The language isn’t graphic — we’re still in the land of potent manhoods here — but it’s definitely steamier than I’m used to.

Virgil, a fiercely determined and intelligent plantation slave, was sold after a failed rebellion. His buyer chose him for those same qualities, freed him, and gave him opportunities which have led to Virgil becoming an extraordinarily successful businessman in Boston. His goals in life are to help others who are shackled or downtrodden, fueled less by his own experiences than by a need to make reparation to his former lover Millie, who was punished for his crimes.

On a business visit to England he meets Kate, a “ruined” duke’s daughter who is also a progressive free thinker.  (And astonishingly, not obnoxious about it.) They’re both attracted to each other, though at first Virgil questions her motives: “I hope, Lady Kate, that you are not thinking of using me as a weapon in some private war. Are you perhaps eager to prove your reputation for being a revolutionary to your father and your aunt?” Kate can’t deny the charge entirely, but her interest is mostly sincere — and she’s sincerely hot for him.  Which is a tremendous relief to her, since her “ruination” by her louse of former fiance left her fearing that she’s frigid.

I don’t know enough to comment on the historical plausibility or authenticity of this novel, though I suspect they’re iffy.  Race issues aside, it seemed surprisingly easy for the characters to find private places to have trysts — although according to the author’s note, the house and grounds for the series were designed with that in mind!  (The book is part of a multi-author continuity series, but stands fine on its own.) In any event, the overall tone felt appropriate, and that’s generally good enough for me.

I did find it odd how little race is addressed in the story.  Virgil encounters very little hostility and when he does, it’s not shown as a race issue. For example, here are Kate’s father’s thoughts on their proposed match: “That the man was an America, albeit one of that country’s richest inhabitants, was bad enough. That he was a commoner, and ex-slave with a lineage that could be traced back precisely one generation and only on one side, made the marriage, as far as the duke was concerned, simply impossible.” This comes off as somewhat disingenuous. And except for one mention of his discomfort at being the only black person in a room, Virgil himself seems as color-blind as everyone else, and surprisingly detached from his former slave status.

Aside from its unusual premise, this wasn’t particularly groundbreaking or original, but it was an absorbing story with appealing characters. I give it 3 stars. You can buy it from Amazon here or from All Romance here.

Published by Harlequin Historicals. Review copy borrowed from the public library.