>> Wednesday, April 17, 2013
TITLE: A Gentleman Undone
AUTHOR: Cecilia Grant
SETTING: 19th century England
SERIES: Follows A Lady Awakened, and some of the characters in that one show up here, but it stands alone well.
A seductive beauty turns the tables on a gentleman gaming for the guiltiest of pleasures in this rich and sensual Regency romance from beloved newcomer Cecilia Grant.A Lady Awakened was one of my top reads last year, fresh, different, and immensely satisfying. So, while I tried to keep them at a realistic level, my expectations for Grant's second, A Gentleman Undone, were sky-high. Well, I'm very pleased to say Grant did not disappoint. AGU was yet another book I'd never read before, and I loved it.
Lydia Slaughter understands the games men play—both in and out of the bedroom. Not afraid to bend the rules to suit her needs, she fleeces Will Blackshear outright. The Waterloo hero had his own daring agenda for the gaming tables of London’s gentlemen’s clubs. But now he antes up for a wager of wits and desire with Lydia, the streetwise temptress who keeps him at arm’s length.
A kept woman in desperate straits, Lydia has a sharp mind and a head for numbers. She gambles on the sly, hoping to win enough to claim her independence. An alliance with Will at the tables may be a winning proposition for them both. But the arrangement involves dicey odds with rising stakes, sweetened with unspoken promise of fleshly delights. And any sleight of hand could find their hearts betting on something neither can afford to risk: love.
Will Blackshear is just back from the war, and carrying a heavy load. He feels responsible for the death of one of the men who served with him, and is determined to do whatever he can for his widow, who's been left practically penniless. He's found a way to give her that freedom, but in order to do so, he needs a stake, and that drives him to the gambling tables. He reckons that as long as he plays soberly and carefully, he should be able to best the drunk lordlings who frequent those places.
And then, on his first night, he meets Lydia Slaughter. Lydia is a courtesan, there with her protector, and on a mission much like Will's. She's very much aware of the insecurity of her life, and is determined to make enough money to be able to retire. She doesn't need that much, only enough so that the interest from her investment will allow her to live a modest life. Her thought process is similar to Will's, only Lydia is a mathematical genius* and has taught herself how to be a total cardsharp. Between the card-counting and the outright cheating, she's hard to beat. When her protector falls into a drunken stupor at the table, she starts playing his cards, as if it was just a lark, and sweeps all the money from the table.
Most of the men there just laugh it off, but Will is not amused, and confronts her. And there starts their relationship. Lydia offers to teach him how to play (partly to make amends, partly to make sure he doesn't give her away -best use of the Monty Hall problem in a romance novel, BTW!), and when it becomes clear her habit of playing her protector's cards when he falls asleep cannot continue, they become allies and hatch up a scheme to collaborate in some high-stakes play. And all the while they get to know each other, and the initial attraction between them grows and grows.
Their relationship is just amazing. It's an impossible one, as Will is pretty much penniless and there's no way he can support Lydia, and Lydia understandably feels she can't endanger her position with her protector until she's got enough money to ensure her independence. And yet, the more time they spend together, the more they yearn for each other. I loved that Will ‘sees’ Lydia from the beginning. He wants her from the moment he meets her, but not so much because she’s attractive physically, but because she interests him as a person. As for Lydia, it doesn't take long before she starts seeing the differences between Will and other men. He's honourable and good, and that makes the physical attraction hard to resist. They both try, but it's impossible to resist, harder and harder every time, and Grant conveyed just how difficult perfectly.
Something else I thought was incredibly good was the relationship between Lydia and her protector, Edward. I loved how nuanced Grant’s portrayal of it was. Lydia actually enjoys the sex, at least at the start of the book, before the relationship deteriorates. However, the degradation of such a relationship comes through loud and clear, even when the sex is still enjoyable. Grant doesn't show this through making Edward into some sort of monster. When the book starts, he’s decent enough to Lydia. He's someone who cares about satisfying his mistress in bed, isn’t abusive physically, or anything like that. But he treats her like a mistress, not like a real person with feelings, not like someone he respects. She’s there to attend to his sexual needs, and that arrangement feels degrading. And with a heroine as self-aware as Lydia, so conscious of her place in society and lack of power, that hurts. In a genre where having the heroine become the hero's mistress is so often written as sexy and hot, it was a very refreshing perspective.
There is, of course, a HEA, but when I found out about Lydia’s history, it was obvious that she would have a LOT of trouble trusting someone enough to love. The way Grant had established her character made that very clear. I was actually borderline at the end as to whether it was believable that she’d be able to love Will at all. I was convinced in the end, but I liked the sense of risk and danger the uncertainty gave the book, even with a guaranteed HEA.
Highly recommended, and I can't wait to see what Grant comes up with next.
MY GRADE: An A-.
* I've read more than one book where one of the characters is some sort of genius in a particular area, and often don’t find those convincing. I suspect it’s because the authors themselves aren’t geniuses in that area, so all they show is what the characters do, but not how this changes the very way they are and how they think. It was different here. I was convinced that Lydia’s mathematical abilities (which she herself admits are more about calculation than abstract mathematics) affect the way she views the world and thinks of things, and that was fantastic.