I’ll repeat what I tweeted a few days ago … “Virginia Heath, where have you been all my life?” There’s nothing more satisfying to a reader than to find a great new author. I’ve loved the length and ethos of Harlequin Historicals, but haven’t found a glom-worthy, auto-buy author among them. I am cautiously, optimistically saying Heath may be “it”. The final book in her King’s Elite series, The Determined Lord Hadleigh, had me in thrall the past few days with engaging characters, a slow-moving, slow-burning romance, and an ease and smoothness to the writing that we rarely see in romance, sadly. (I didn’t even mind that I came to the series at the end, even though I was sorry to have missed the previous books.) I was captivated from the opening scene: dramatic and “tell me more” compelling as it was.
At the Old Bailey, Crown Prosecutor Lord Tristan Hadleigh is arguing for Viscount Penhurst’s conviction for treason. In the courtroom, his soon-to-be widow, Lady Penhurst, aka Penelope/ “Penny”, née Ridley, twisting handkerchiefs, avoiding journalists, and following every word, regretting the law doesn’t allow her to testify against her vile husband. Like England, Penny suffered much at Penhurst’s hand, used for her fortune, derided for her inferior birth, abused physically, and abandoned once she conceived Penhurst’s heir.
The composed, thorough, meticulous Lord Hadleigh, even arguing his case brilliantly, is consumed by guilt over the fate of Lady Penhurst and her son, the adorable toddler Freddie. The crown has stripped the family of Penhurst’s estate and left them penniless. The beautiful, pale anxious soon-to-be traitor’s widow tugs at Tristan’s heart and conscience. With the help of Penny’s friend, Clarissa, and her husband Seb, Tristan’s friend and co-crown-pursuer of treasonous aristos (all laid out in the first three series books), Tristan contrives to ensure Penny and her son have a safe place to live and plenty of food and comfort. But Tristan’s charitable ruses are discovered and Penny’s reaction is surprisingly feisty and angry.
The trial that brings Tristan and Penny together conjures emotional turmoil. Tristan’s interest in Penny isn’t only due to her beauty and his attraction, but to the memories of his abused mother, whom he couldn’t save. For Penny, being free of her husband, even penurious, offers a new lease on life and she sets about looking for employment in the country, where Freddie can grow up without his father’s shameful taint. Though Penny too is attracted to the interfering Lord Hadleigh, her discovery of how he’s contrived to help her financially sets her into a fit of temper, borne of a woman who never wants to be manipulated, or controlled, not even to be protected, or cared for … not without her consent, or will. This makes for delicious banter when Penny confronts Tristan and the lovely eating of humble pie on his part. This type of exchange sets the tone of their exchanges, even while they grow in affection and friendship.
To mitigate his rescue of the unwilling damsel, Tristan offers Penny work as the housekeeper of his Sussex estate, especially because this is where he will plan and prepare witnesses for the remainder of these ongoing trials of treason and intrigue. Penny’s knowledge of the case and discretion, along with her organizing and managing abilities, makes her the perfect choice, restores him in her good graces, and ensures she continues to have a safe place for her and Freddie. Tristan has proudly managed it all … again. Except being with Penny in the house he’s avoided for the ten years since his mother’s death brings Tristan to an emotional crisis, just as being capable, safe, and happy give Penny the strength to accompany him on his painful emotional journey into the past.
The Determined Lord Hadleigh is very much a novel about a man’s emotional resurrection, even while it’s about a woman’s physical one. Not content with building a romance on mutual respect, attraction, laughter, and love, Heath also engages us with the historical circumstances of women’s lives, how the law failed to protect them and how their marriages became nightmares of neglect and abuse, with no recourse to the law. It’s still a romance, though, and imbued with life, love, and laughter. A mere snippet may convince you, dear reader, to give Heath a try. As Tristan’s high-handedness melts before Penny’s assertiveness, and as Penny recognizes Tristan’s qualities of generosity, respect, and understanding, the novel gains in emotional intensity, mitigated by delightful humour. When Tristan shows a warmer, charming side to Penny, for example, she has to admit his attractiveness: “Damn him and his well-fitting breeches and perfect cups of tea!” Could a man be more attractive to a woman than one with sturdy thighs and tea-making abilities? I think not. In a nutshell, while Lord Hadleigh is light on action, Heath manages a world of conversation and emotion in a domestic setting … that well, no pun intended, had me on the edge of my comfortable seat, with the requisite cuppa for company. My ever-stalwart reading companion, Miss Austen, concurs when I say that, in The Determined Lord Hadleigh, we find “no charm equal to tenderness of heart,” Emma.
Virginia Heath’s The Determined Lord Hadleigh is published by Harlequin Books. It was released on July 1st and may be found at your preferred vendors. I received an e-ARC from Harlequin Books, via Netgalley.