Miss Bates loves the opposites-attract romance trope, especially when the hero’s and heroine’s surface characteristics mask their opposites. Opposites-attract “squared” describes Sabrina Jeffries’s second Sinful Suitors 1830-set romance, The Study Of Seduction. “Grumpy Edwin” Barlow, Earl of Blakeborough, pits himself against “frivolous beauty” Lady Clarissa Lindsey, his sister’s best friend. In time, Edwin reveals a wicked wit and Clarissa, a gravitas borne of pain.
Edwin is a member of the St. George’s Club, a gentleman’s circle dedicated to protecting their families’ and friends’ women from scoundrels, socalled “sinful suitors.” Edwin’s friend, Warren Corry, Marquess of Knightford, Clarissa’s cousin, has watched out for her and her widowed mother, Lady Margrave. Knightford is called away to the continent to help Clarissa’s brother, Niall. Edwin and Clarissa, long-acquainted, have sparred and jabbed at each other since Clarissa and Yvette, Edwin’s sister, tittered, gossiped, and shopped together. Edwin’s steadfast, stodgy, introverted propriety rubs Clarissa’s social butterfly effervescence and flirtatious energy to poke and prod at his restrained demeanor. Nevertheless, Edwin insists he take Knightford’s place, protecting Clarissa from a stalker. Count Geraud Durand, France’s chargé d’affaires, follows, goads, importunes, and forces his unwanted, oily attentions on Clarissa and infuriates Edwin.
Edwin’s protective instinct and affection for Clarissa won’t allow this. Clarissa’s seemingly careless exterior hides a young women who carries within her, fear, shame, and trauma. When Durand’s overtures become dangerous to Clarissa, Edwin insists they marry. As Edwin and Clarissa grow closer, Edwin’s stodginess is under siege by his growing love and need for Clarissa, even as Clarissa’s frivolity gives way to her vulnerability and seriousness.
Jeffries does a great job of initially contrasting Clarissa’s social butterfly nature with Edwin’s social awkwardness: “Edwin didn’t make friends easily, probably because he didn’t suffer fools easily. And society was full of fools.” Edwin’s social reticence is part and parcel of his emotional one, but he harbors a tenderness for Clarissa: “Her barbed wit fired his temper, her provocative smile inflamed him, and her shadowed eyes haunted his sleep. He could no more ignore her than he could ignore a rainbowed sunset … or a savage storm.” Edwin may be staid, but he’s awfully charming. He’s big, he’s strong, has beautiful, serious silver-grey eyes – and the heart of a poet. Edwin is perceptive, noticing Clarissa’s “shadowed eyes”. What do they hide in this darling woman? Edwin senses, once they are thrown together more and more, once they marry, there is more to Clarissa than a woman who enjoys balls and routs: ” … despite her outrageous manner, he sometimes glimpsed a seriousness in her that reminded him of his own.” Jeffries beautifully depicts romance’s moment of connection: when the differences that separate hero and heroine are bridged.
Jeffries has created a wonderful hero: honourable, witty, stalwart. But he’s not perfect: he takes on all responsibility and never shares his burdens. Once he and Clarissa are married, he protects her, but doesn’t let her in. Clarissa is equally lovely. Clarissa struggles with an assault she suffered, but she never allows it to take over her life: “Years ago, she’d allowed a man to bully her, and it had shattered her life. Never again … Granted, she wouldn’t mind having children, but that required taking a man into her bed – and the very thought made her hands grow clammy and her throat close up. No. Marriage was not for her.” And thus, two awesome protagonists enter into a marriage-of-convenience with vulnerabilities they’re not yet willing to share with the other. Jeffries does a beautiful job, (while maintaining the Durand-as-stalker suspense plot) of showing how Edwin and Clarissa learn to trust and love, grow to understand, confide, and commit to each other in every way.
Miss Bates hopes she hasn’t made Jeffries’s romance sound as stodgy as Edwin appears to be. Edwin’s and Clarissa’s banter is hugely entertaining. Here’s a sampling of an early Clarissa-Edwin exchange, at a social function: ” ‘Because you were eavesdropping.’ Mischief seized her. ‘How rude of you.’ As they passed into the breakfast room, he shrugged. ‘If you don’t want people hearing your pronouncements, you shouldn’t talk at the volume of a dockworker.’ ” There’s a fearless calling-each-other-out-ness to Clarissa and Edwin and yet, their affection and tenderness are always there with the banter and gentle poking fun. Their conversation is that of long-standing friends; their married life, though it has hurdles, is a safe space where they can be their true selves. It is to Jeffries’s credit she keeps conflict and tension present while creating a hero-heroine relationship so much fun to read and evident of love and trust.
Clarissa and Edwin’s marriage’s greatest challenge isn’t their “opposing” natures, but Clarissa’s struggle with a past sexual assault. It makes her freeze up and be terrified of Edwin’s love-making. And Edwin, in turn, with his modest amour-propre, assumes that Clarissa isn’t attracted to him. This weakness in our alpha-hero humanizes him most beautifully. But Jeffries’s romance is about the beauties of trust. Edwin experienced his own trauma when he caught a family friend assaulting his mother. Once he realizes what Clarissa went through, his amour-propre restored to confidence, he can help her lovingly find joy in the marriage-bed. One important instance comes when Clarissa, who feels used and soiled by the past experience, tells Edwin about her “Vile Seducer”. Edwin rightly convinces her he was no seducer and needs be named for what he is, a “rapist”. This naming of the thing helps Clarissa heal. One of Clarissa and Edwin’s intimate moments offers a hint of the joy and wit in Jeffries’s superb protagonists (and a lovely nod to her title): ” ‘You are very good at … whatever this is.’ He paused to glance up at her. ‘I’ve had enough opportunities to study seduction to know what I’m doing.’ ” XD Miss Bates loved every moment of Jeffries’s compassionate, loving penning of Edwin and Clarissa’s love and marriage. With her delightful reading companion, Miss Austen, Miss Bates finds in Jeffries’s Study Of Seduction evidence there is “no charm equal to tenderness of heart,” Emma.
Sabrina Jeffries’s The Study Of Seduction is published by Pocket Books (Simon and Schuster). It was released on March 22nd and is available at your preferred vendors. Miss Bates received an e-ARC from Pocket Books, via Netgalley.