Top positive review
Another fantastic read from a terrific series; love the grumpy/cheerful pairing!
Reviewed in the United States 🇺🇸 on June 19, 2020
[ "Do not return for dinner. I will explain to Mama that you fell prey to an unfortunate ailment." She sniffed. "In deference to her fondness for you, I won't mention the ailment is your personality."
He nearly laughed. The urge was yet another contradiction—one should not feel amused by insults. But Eugenia Huxley was proving the exception to every rule. ]
I feel like I say this every time I write an Elisa Braden review, but it really is stunning to me that she's not more well known—she has such great romances!!! I've read the books in this series greatly out of order, but like most series like these, characters reappear so frequently, that it can be helpful to read them in order.
SUMMARY. Lady Eugenia Huxley (22), also known as the Huxley Harlot, has been banished from Polite Society. In spite of her father being the Earl of Berne and the fact that several of her sisters have married well (i.e. powerful men), the fact that she was caught doing something naughty at a ball with a footman was just too much, and nothing could be done to smooth it over or keep it quiet. She still lives at home, but spends her day working in a not-very-great milliner's store, eager to create the extravagant hats she's constantly thinking up. She is shocked one day when she runs into Phineas Brand, the Earl of Holstoke (33). Last time she saw him was six years ago, when one of her sisters (Maureen) was turning down his marriage proposal (or reneging on her acceptance? I don't know, haven't read that one yet) (Confessions of a Dangerous Lord, Book #6).
Phineas is in town because he's determined to try his hand at the marriage mart again. He has a younger sister, Hannah (22), and she's had a rough life (that's putting it LIGHTLY people!! The next book is her story), and she is super wary of basically everyone. He wants to show her what a healthy relationship looks like, and that it's possible to have love and a family, etc. (Super thin premise/excuse IMHO, but whatever; it's not too central, just serves to explain why they're back in London). I have not read Maureen's book, but apparently, Eugenia immediately took a liking to Phineas, and somewhat vice versa (Phineas is cold, remote, and not a big fan of displaying emotion); not in any inappropriate way—she was 16, he was 27, and he was pursuing her sister. In fact, the whole Huxley family took a shine to Phineas (something he finds perpetually confusing), and now that he's back in town and in society, he gets pulled into their orbit again.
Both Eugenia and Phineas have scandals attached to their names: Eugenia because of aforementioned footman incident, and Phineas because of (view spoiler) (in case you want to read the series in order and want to be surprised). This makes his efforts on the marriage mart quite difficult, of course, since he has debutantes fainting at his mere greeting.
The mystery subplot is tied to one that has appeared in other books in the series and is a big plot driver. Again, in case you read the series in order ... The basics: as mentioned in the above spoiler, Phineas's mother was a psychotic evil murdering witch, a lot of people in the series were affected by this, she's since been killed, but now women are turning up dead again in a similar manner to how she killed, and all fingers start pointing to Phineas.
MAIN CHARACTERS. I absolutely adored Eugenia and really drew me in. I'm a total shy-wallflower-heroine lover, so one might think she wouldn't really be my cup of tea—she's outgoing, brash, doesn't care what people think, etc.—but I found her fantastic. She's not like that just for the sake of being like that, which I think sometimes authors do (that whole show vs. tell thing), she's very three-dimensional and is someone whom I would totally want to be best friends with, even though we're very different.
I love her streak of independence, though she also has a strong sense of responsibility and feels a lot of guilt for the impact that the scandal had on her family, both internally and externally (her family is awesome). She wants to strike out on her own and eventually setup her own milliner shop, and so she's currently a "lowly assistant" in a pretty crappy store, but is determined to bear the mistreatment and creativity-stifling-environment for the sake of learning from the experience. She's super loyal and that loyalty immediately extends towards Phineas; even in the beginning of the book in "present day," it's not a romantic thing at the beginning, she just has an affinity and interest in him—she's a curious person and he's a big unknowable mystery.
Phineas is a fantastic stern / cold / remote hero, and I absolutely loved his pairing with Eugenia; they're perfect together. He's very similar in some ways, in that he also has a strong sense of responsibility and is super loyal and protective of people in his life ... which quickly includes Eugenia, though again, not out of any immediate conscious romantic/sexual interest. Personally, I like that that's not their motivator from the beginning, and it's what makes this a sort of "friends to lovers" story. He's very much shaped by his childhood and things having to do with the mystery, so I'll kind of just leave it at that.
CRITICISM. A couple things bugged me:
— Some parts of the story were very contrived (the reason he's back in London on the marriage mart again, as mentioned before; Eugenia getting fired from the milliner shop; the extreme action Eugenia takes to "protect" Phineas when suspicion falls on him; etc.)
— I really didn't understand the "blackness" thing going on with Phineas. I mean yes, I get it—it's the passionate and emotional side of him that he is always trying to repress, blah di blah—but the way it's described, the ongoing "battle" he has with it, and then the eye-rolling over-the-top-sweet scenes of Eugenia accepting him, helping him accept it, etc. Initially, I thought maybe it was going to be mental illness, which would have been a nice surprise, since that's almost never addressed by main characters in romances, but I quickly realized that wasn't it. I'm not even against this aspect of the story for itself, I actually think it's interesting and more fully develops his character, explaining why he seems so emotionally removed, but the way that it was presented and incorporated was not well done. You know those times when you're reading a romance book and it's an author who writes such flowery love scenes, that you're not actually sure what they're doing or where they are in the process? (Hahaha you know what I'm talking about!!!) It was like that, as if Braden's desire to present this aspect in such a poetic manner got the best of her and ended up making the entire thing incomprehensible.
— It got quite sappy for quite awhile at the end.
EMOTIONAL READ. It's interesting that one of my biggest annoyances was Braden's attempt to show greater depth and pain on Phineas's side, when what made the book emotional for me was the greater depth and pain on Eugenia's side. That didn't feel at all forced, and that's probably why it was so much more powerful. It is VERY rare for me to feel really emotional about a romance (beyond the giddiness, laughing, contentment, etc.), but that happened with this book. I felt a tug in my heart several times when Eugenia was confronted with her Big Mistake. There's a scene where her mother makes a small comment, telling her not to bring scandal to Phineas's name because he already has enough, and she feels so gutted and wow, I felt it too. The mother really loves her, she's not mean or neglectful, which makes this comment from her that much more powerful. The fact that Phineas previously pursued her sister is also a point of vulnerability and insecurity for Eugenia. There are several times where I totally felt Eugenia's pain; Braden did a really excellent job on that score.
BOTTOM LINE. Great leading characters, especially heroine; fantastic supporting cast; funny exchanges; super hot chemistry.
SERIES. I do recommend reading the series in order, though I honestly would say to skip two of the books; of course it's always completely subjective, but the fact that I'm saying skip them while also saying read the whole series in order ... well, that tells you something about how much I disliked them. The others though were GREAT, this one included!!
#0.5 — Ever Yours, Annabelle (TBR)
#1 — The Madness of Viscount Atherbourne (DNF)
#2 — The Truth About Cads and Dukes (4 stars)
#3 — Desperately Seeking a Scoundrel (TBR)
#4 — The Devil Is a Marquess (4-4.5 stars)
#5 — When a Girl Loves an Earl (TBR)
#5.5 — Twelve Nights as His Mistress (4 stars)
#6 — Confessions of a Dangerous Lord (TBR)
#7 — Anything but a Gentleman (2 stars)
#8 — A Marriage Made in Scandal , this book (4 stars)
#9 — A Kiss from a Rogue (4 stars)