In Secrets Of A Scandalous Heiress,” the final volume in her Regency-set Matchmakers trilogy, Theresa Romain offers a romance as much about identity as finding and keeping love. Miss Bates read and loved the second in the trilogy, To Charm A Naughty Countess. The former follows the latter in theme and concern, though reading Scandalous Heiress as a stand-alone doesn’t require any previous knowledge. Romain loves to create characters who are on the fringe of a rigid and judgemental ton: they may have a whiff of scandal, or peculiarity about them. Their romance narratives see the working-out of how they accept, relish, and come to enjoy happiness despite their marginalized positions. Romain’s romances are not cross-class, but are concerned with class no less.
The eponymous scandalous, secretive heiress is Augusta Meredith. She and hero Josiah “Joss” Everett meet in Bath’s Pump Room. They share a previous, vague acquaintance and have been aware of each other as living on the fringes of the ton: Josiah, by virtue of his blood (his mother was half-Indian); Augusta, by virtue of class (her parents made oodles of money with a built-from-humble-origins cosmetics company). Their arrival in Bath comes from dissatisfaction and dilemma. Augusta recently lost her parents and was lied to and abandoned by a worthless lover. She poses as the widowed Mrs. Flowers to find a lover, hoping that an affair will assuage her grief and heart-ache. Josiah, who works as his cousin’s, Baron Sutcliffe’s, man of business is trying to uncover the baron’s blackmailer. They encounter, recognize, and agree to help each other achieve their goals. The opening chapter is filled with wit and banter, note Josiah’s consideration of Augusta’s figure, “a young woman with more curves than subtlety.” Augusta, on her part, notes Joss’ sandalwood scent, hinting of his heritage and, as she later observes, “a man of kind hands and unexpected honour.” They are attracted to each other; while class doesn’t separate them, money does. Augusta is “heiress to a cosmetics fortune” and Joss wants to scrape together a hundred pounds to leave his dissipated, immoral cousin’s employ. When she proposes that he become her lover, he refuses, citing his integrity and self-possession. He wants her, though.
There were many elements to Scandalous Heiress that attracted Miss Bates immediately: the protagonists, their marginalized place in the social whirl, but especially their banter and rueful awareness of a lowly place in the social hierarchy. Their agreement to help one another was equally humorous and poignant. Nevertheless, Miss Bates had a difficult time getting through the first half: it dragged as it introduced secondary characters and developped the main characters’ individual storylines. Their story as a couple struck a minor key. The scene which introduced Baron Sutcliffe’s profligate presence had more life to it than the few shared by Joss and Augusta. Joss’ intelligence and honour came through, as did his motivation for wanting to leave Sutcliffe’s employee. Augusta’s reasons for impersonating the widowed Mrs. Flowers were vague and unsubstantiated. Joss and Augusta’s relationship was left by the wayside: and, when they were together, what Romain thought a build-up of longing and desire, Miss Bates found frustrating. This is one of the romance writer’s greatest challenges: to keep her lovers apart and/or in conflict, of interest or actual, sufficiently to keep her reader reading. On the other hand, if this tips over into frustration, she runs the risk of losing her reader altogether. Miss Bates discloses that Scandalous Heiress near slipped into DNF territory on several occasions. Until half way into Scandalous Heiress, Miss Bates’ reading was halfhearted at best, disinterested at worst.
What kept Miss Bates reading? It was promise and frustration both, evident, for example, in a passage such as one wherein Joss refuses Augusta’s offer to be her lover:
“It’s not a matter of desire, but decency.” He pressed at his temple with the heel of his hand. “My own background has made me painfully aware of the importance of a man’s character. As I know you to be a maiden rather than a widow, I cannot be part of your ruin.” But I am already ruined. And not only in the way society might suspect. No, her ruin came from within, from the spiraling thoughts in which she so often became entangled.”
Joss’ insistence on decency, integrity, and honour as his only refuge, the sole means by which he can maintain his self-respect, so clearcut and honest, were wonderful. On the other, that mental muddiness to which Augusta refers, that might also be a way of describing the novel, as the author was caught in word-tangles, obfuscations, and plot meanderings. Then, the narrative would burst forth with a little gem and Miss Bates kept reading. Until about the halfway point when the narrative won her over and she continued with relish and interest.
The second half of Romain’s romance novel was awesome; yet, it is what Miss Bates can least talk about because, spoilers. She can say, however, she loved how Romain brought together Augusta’s need for a disguise with her fears of love and commitment. She can also say she loved how Joss defended his honour, sexual and social, against Augusta’s advances without denying his love, or her worthiness. Witness crème de la crème dialogue:
” … Mrs. Flowers was to free you for sin and scandal.”
… “I admit you were right. Does that gratify you? Mrs. Flowers is not the solution to … well, to anything.”
“Ah, but I wasn’t right.”
Augusta’s eyes opened wide, only to see Joss shake his head. “I once informed you that Mrs. Flowers was still you. But now I don’t think she is. She’s you with all the most interesting parts stripped away.” … It was so strange and lovely to be told, and to tell, the truth …
thinks Augusta. Joss and Augusta’s honesty and charm, the genuineness of their relationship dissipates the ton‘s, society’s, strictures. It leaves them open to possibility. It allows them to learn to be their true selves. And, in creating a hero who demands love and commitment of the heroine, Romain demonstrates a rare and beautiful reversal of convention in historical romance. Miss Bates revelled and delighted in this. Moreover, Romain knows the importance of making her love scenes fit her theme and characters. Miss Bates treasures that the love scenes were few and far between, but in keeping with theme and character development. She’s grateful for this final lovely nod to the romance reader’s love of reading the HEA: ” ‘Are you ready?’ he asked when they were both gasping, facing one another on the bed like naked, kneeling bookends.” 😉
Miss Bates doesn’t deny that the first half of Secrets Of A Scandalous Heiress was a slog, but the second half makes, as Joss says of his beloved Augusta, “worth” it. Miss Austen deems the Scandalous Heiress “a mind lively and at ease,” Emma.
Theresa Romain’s Secrets Of A Scandalous Heiress is published by Sourcebooks. It has been available since January 6th in your preferred formats at your favourite vendors. Miss Bates is grateful to Sourcebooks for an e-ARC, via Netgalley.
Have you read a romance that left you cold only to win you over in the second half, dear reader? Tell Miss Bates about it in the comments, please.