One of the first romance novels I read when I returned to the genre and combed through best-of lists for titles to throw money at was Lisa Kleypas’s Dreaming Of You. I adored Sarah and Derek, the casino setting, the pesky, bespectacled heroine and hardened with a secret heart of gold hero. Ostensibly, Lorraine Heath’s Beyond Scandal and Desire has echoes of Kleypas’s romance classic, but in many other ways, it is an entirely different beast, unique to Heath’s vision. Beyond Scandal and Desire‘s cross-class promise, its ingenue heroine who’s too smart to stay that way and guttersnipe-made-good hero kept me reading through a slow, though evident of a sure writing hand, first third. The similarities to Kleypas saw me through the premise’s set-up. What kept me rivetted was Heath’s weaving of a tale about the need to be recognized, acknowledged, loved, and validated, a journey both hero and heroine take in their unique ways, about what family means, and where we can meet on a plane of forgiveness and reconciliation. To start, the novel’s gothic opening sees a London aristocrat deliver a new-born to the East End Widow Trewlove, by-blow of an affair? shame of the aristocracy? Yet, the birth scene had been one of tenderness and love between mother and father … whatever happened here, I wanted to know.
The opening chapter jumps thirty-plus years forward. The babe is grown, a powerful, wealthy, self-made man, Mick Trewlove, who’s plotting and machinating to avenge his rejection by his aristocratic father, the man who left him to a possible death (as we learn in the novel’s course, a sad, common practice of dealing with unwanted babies). In the first chapter’s opening scene, Mick and “sister” Fancy stroll through Cremorne Gardens where Mick has plotted to encounter the Earl of Kipwick, son to the Duke of Hedley, and the Duke’s ward and soon-to-be-announced fiancée to Kip, Lady Aslyn Hastings. Mick’s plan? To ruin Kip and Aslyn as a way of blackmailing Hedley to acknowledge him. “Kip,” has a weakness and it isn’t Lady Aslyn. He gambles, losing every un-entailed property his father has given him. As for Lady Aslyn? It’s easy to ruin a woman by seducing and then rejecting her.
Heath’s romance isn’t merely about how Mick is hoisted on his own petard. It’s much more complex and interesting. It’s about how Mick, by getting to know Aslyn and the Hedleys (as all families are more complicated than meets the eye) he begins to see more in Aslyn than a “mark”. He recognizes vulnerabilities and nuances in the Duke, the Duchess, even the dissipated Kip. Heath writes about finding humanity in the people one hates and falling in love with the woman one would exploit. Aslyn’s journey is as compelling as Mick’s. Her response to Mick is fascinating and, at least at first, of a confusing, healthy lust. Once she and Mick get to know each other, thanks to Mick’s carefully orchestrated encounters, Aslyn sees a man who’s worked hard, is fiercely loyal to his “mother”, “sisters and brothers”, and puts his fortune at the service of others by financing an orphanage, by taking in a vulnerable street boy and making him his secretary (with the delightful, Dickensian name of Tittlefitz). The object of her desire is humanized, just as she, as the object of Mick’s means to an end, Aslyn herself, is made whole, sweet, and eminently lovable.
Aslyn is honest about her attraction to Mick, gentle in her handling of his amour-propre, and loves easily and well. She is, however, and this I found most appealing about her, a woman of great integrity and grows more and more as such as the novel unfolds. Aslyn calls out everyone: Mick for his moral expediency and judgement, the aristocratic family for their hypocrisy and judgement. Heath has a great talent in taking the innocent, naïve Aslyn and bringing out the qualities that will make her an interesting, upright, delightfully funny, and forthright woman, equal to Mick’s struggles and hard-earned truths.
What I also loved about Mick and Aslyn’s characterization is how they shared a need to be recognized and acknowledged for themselves, not their titles, backgrounds, fortunes, and status. Those desires took different forms, but their essence was the same. Mick wants to force Hedley’s hand to recognize him because he yearns to be accepted, to be acknowledged for what he’s made of himself and given what he perceives he’s owed. That midnight ride to Mistress Trewlove and the family tragedies behind it turn out to be more complex, human, and sympathetic than Mick initially believes. Mick’s desire for the reassurance of wealth and title are a man’s way of asking for love. Aslyn is much wiser: she wants a man who’ll love her “for herself alone” and not her “yellow hair” or the fortune that comes to the man who marries her. Actually, the “yellow hair” serves her well. Mick and Aslyn share a beautiful, love-infused few scenes of intense physical love that I thought were perfection.
All of this character goodness and a tense, compelling, hold-your-breath narrative movement galloping towards betrayal are marks of masterful execution. Heath’s first novel in her “A Sins For All Seasons” series is one of the year’s must-reads. Heath also gives us tantalizing glimpses into secondary characters’ possible future romances. I can’t wait to read Mick’s sister, the tavern owner Gillie’s romance, book two, woot! And what about casino-owner brother, Finn? Bookshop owner sister, Fancy? And the mysterious, long-haired brother, Beast? Surely, there’s a beauty and the beast trope waiting to happen there? I would even like to see a reformed rake narrative for poor, beset Kip. In a word, I didn’t just love Mick and Aslyn, I loved the people around them and the Victorian world that Heath built, one straining away from the aristocrat-dominating past and slowly advancing toward modernity. With Miss Austen, I say Lorraine Heath’s Beyond Scandal and Desire is evidence that “there is no charm equal to tenderness of heart,” Emma.
Lorraine Heath’s Beyond Scandal and Desire is published by Avon Books. It was released on January 30th and may be found at your preferred vendor. I received an e-ARC from Avon Books, via Edelweiss.