I started reading this because when I posted the $1.99 sale alert, Samalamadingdong, a reader, said that this was one of her favorite Balogh novels. I love me some historicals so off I went to read it. I thought to myself, while I was reading the opening chapters, “Well, this isn't exactly my cup of tea, there's a lot of infodumpery and some of these characters talk in exposition and that's too bad. I'll give it one more chapter.”
Then, in what seemed like a minute later but was actually two hours, I was 45% through the book and had to force myself to put it down and go to bed.
Balogh, it seems, is quiet sneaky crack reading for me. As I said on Twitter, “I'm reading and suddenly I CANNOT STOP READING. Even when I see the flaws, THERE IS NO STOPPING.” There's a mellow addictive quality to the writing and I couldn't put the book down. Even though I see all the flaws like they're standing up and introducing themselves to me, I loved the welcoming comfort of this book. This is a comfort read historical if there ever was one.
Sophie Armitage is a respectable, but shabby widow of a war hero. Because of her late husband's last act of valor, which included saving the Duke of Wellington's life, she's received a lot of attention and consideration that has in effect preserved her independence. The Prince Regent provided a home and three servants to care for her, and she's a celebrated guest at any party she attends in London. But Sophie's finances are stretched thin by what she calls letters demanding payment, a plotline that grows bit by bit. When the story begins she's very worried about herself, and feeling sad that yet again she has to make do with the same three dresses for every social engagement because these debts must be paid off and kept secret. Her dresses are so well-known that other characters remark upon them. Sophie makes jokes about them at her own expense, but it's painful that she feels so ill-suited (literally) for London society.
Sophie followed her husband into war, “followed the drum,” as it's called, and as a result knows four very celebrated war heroes, who, in the tradition of historical romance have a well-known history, are ridiculously good looking, are socially infamous, and carry a silly but identifiable moniker that drapes them in a certain amount of danger and allure as shorthand character development. They're The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse – all the better to make romance heroes out of you, my dears.
Time out for a minute: wouldn't it be awesome to have a cage match battle of the romance hero groups? Cynsters vs. Horsemen! Fallen Angels vs Bridgertons! And we won't leave the ladies out – Wallflowers vs ANY of the widow/jewels/spinster club names! This could be fun. Pelisses, crinolines, cravats and silks everywhere. Yeehaw! Anyway, back to the review.
The Four Horseman have assembled (like the Avengers but without masks and tights) in London for the season. Two are now married, and two remain. I am most pleased to assure you that the following requirements of Historical Romance Boy Bandmanship have been met:
- the married ones tease the unmarried ones for being unmarried
- they remark upon their orgy-filled past (yes, orgy-filled) with smiling sighs of nostalgia because orgy
- the married ones are very faithful to their lovely wives, who were probably romance heroines (oh, don't be silly. Of course, they were)
- the unmarried ones talking about finding a whorehouse, mistresses, or both
- the married ones tease the unmarried ones again that they are next
- the four of them talk to one another in backstory exposition so the reader knows that they all remember where they came from, and can fill in any stray tree-dwelling eavesdroppers on their history in less than two pages of dialogue, even though normal people who have been friends for so many years don't have to talk about that history because it is a presumed known and a shared identity
The trip to the whorehouse is unsatisfying for Nathaniel, our hero, because despite being too long without a woman (10 pushups!) (Done!) he is dissatisfied. Perhaps the teasing worked? More likely it is because he is The Hero, but either way, whores are SO not his thing any more, even though he is SO handsome that OF COURSE the whores all want to bang him and then again a third or fourth time for free. Shallow and meaningless physical connections are not appealing anymore – oh noes!
Nathaniel has done some growing up since the army, too. He is in town to find husbands for one of his sisters and his ward, a prickly woman of 24 named Lavinia who cannot access her inheritance due to the terms of her father's will until she is either (a) married or (b) 30 years of age. I was sure that “Lavinia” cames from the Greek for 'Sequel Bait,' but I was mistaken. She is from the Latin for “subplot, and a very good one.” Here is a small taste of Lavinia, who I really liked (FYI, Eden is a dude, and one of the Horsemen in the Boy Band):
“Pardon me,” Lavinia said sharply, “but do I understand that I have somehow become involved in a plot? Are you by any chance trying to get Nat and Sophie matched up?”
Eden sighed. “I should have warned you,” he said, addressing Moira and Kenneth, “not to say a word in present company. Men, to Miss Bergland’s way of looking at the world, were created merely as a punishment to be imposed upon ladies by other men. And since Nat is the man who has oppressed her with his guardianship for years and Sophie is her friend, she will doubtless have a fit of the vapors at the very idea of trying to promote a match between them.”
“Do you have fits of the vapors, Lord Pelham?” Lavinia asked. “Must I merely because I am a woman? Do try not to be ridiculous.”
I would have loved for Lavinia to have her own book. She was terrific.
There are four Horsemen of the Apocalypse… but this is a trilogy. I tried not to let that fact mess with my head – though I would have loved to see Lavinia as a heroine in her own right. She was marvelous, and a lovely friend and foil for Sophie in many scenes. They're both independent and older than most heroines, but while Lavinia is caustic, Sophie is congenial, using honey to get what she wants instead of Lavinegar.
Nathaniel, to his own surprise, as he tells the reader during his ruminating travels into London in a carriage named “backstory,” has learned to love country life after years of war orgies and war battles. He's a little bummed to be in London, but also very excited to see his friends. And he wants those pesky women married off so he can do what he wants without interference:
But he had been beset by women for the past two years. He was longing for the time when his home would be his own, when he might come and go as he pleased, be as tidy or as untidy about the house as he pleased, put his booted feet up on the desk in his library if he pleased, or even on the best sofa in the drawing room, for that matter. He looked forward to the time when he might walk into any of the dayrooms in the house without looking about him in fear of seeing yet another new piece of embroidery or crocheting adorning tabletops or backs of sofas or arms of chairs. He looked forward to the time when he might bring one or two of his favorite dogs into the house if he pleased. He had no intention of replacing sisters and a cousin with a wife, who would of necessity be with him for the rest of his life, managing his home for his supposed comfort. He intended to remain a bachelor—at least for a good number of years to come.
Yes, another requirement of Historical Romance Boy Bandmanship met: each is a confirmed and insistent no really he means it bachelor forever. You don't believe him, do you? No. Of course you don't. I didn't either. It's a minor conflict – Changing the Hero's Mind about Marriage – but a familiar one.
Sophie meets the Four Horseman as she's walking with her niece, and they're all very very pleased to see her. Her presence at each camp during the war was a warm spot of home and comfort for them all – she'd clean their suits and listen to their woes and take care of them, sometimes even cooking for them. Her husband's tent was popular because of Sophie. They all think of her as a comrade, “good old Sophie,” as one of them calls her. So yes, this is a friends-to-lovers story.
Sophie has some secrets. Some of Sophie's reminiscences of her late husband Walter don't match the glowing memories of everyone around her, but she keeps her thoughts to herself. By virtue of being the hero's widow, she survives on her own respectably, and she can't let on that her experience of her marriage was different (and she's cagey about what exactly was wrong, too). This also serves to prop up the hero from the Historical Romance Boy Band, as he doesn't have much to do to look More Awesome than her late husband, the dead Other Guy.
Shortly after their meeting, Nathaniel and Sophie end up at the same dinner party. She meets the wives of the happily married Horsemen, they all have a lovely time, Nathaniel thinks to himself how happy he is to see her again, and all is comfortable and familiar, just the way he likes it. Later, Nathaniel and Sophie have chocolate in her parlor and then – to his surprise – there's sexual attraction! Good old Sophie has a functioning sex drive! Since she's familiar and they're already friends, he has no objections to any of these developments.
And whoosh! Off they go to bed together. I was not expecting that! Sophie instigates, too, which was also surprising to me, as Sophie is the type of character who, through no fault of her own, has lived a life where things happen to her and she adapts, not one where she happens and things change as a result. Her initiation of sexual aggression, a very quiet and very polite pursuit, is a step out of character for her. But it's one that makes her very happy, as she's nursed a secret crush on Nathaniel (and to a lesser extent all the members of the Historical Romance Hero Boy Band) for years. Having him in her bed makes her very happy.
The first time Nathaniel and Sophie hook up, she doesn't orgasm. The second time, no orgasm for her, either. I was about to knock Nathaniel in the head for his oversight. But I think he presumed that Sophie knew how to hook herself up, given that she was a widow and had been married before, and of course she's hiding something about the reality of her marriage.
Soon after their first night together, Sophie proposes they embark on an affair, a discreet one between friends.
He could not pretend to misunderstand her. “Sophie.” He dipped his head closer to hers. “Are you offering to be my mistress?”
“No,” she said calmly. “A mistress is a kept woman. I am my own mistress, Nathaniel. But I found it pleasant, I believe you did, and …”
“And?” He raised his eyebrows. Thank heaven, a part of his mind thought, they were standing on a deserted street.
Her lips moved without producing sound. But she pulled herself together. “You will be in town for a few months,” she said. “You will be busy. So will I. But just occasionally … Perhaps it would not be a bad idea … I am not in search of a husband, Nathaniel, any more than you are in search of a wife. But—but I am a woman with a woman’s needs. Hungers. Sometimes. Not enough to send me endlessly in search of lovers. But … But if you wish … If it would solve a problem for you …”
He understood in a sudden flash despite her seeming inability to complete a sentence. How easy it was to see Sophie’s good nature and not realize that there were deep and real feelings behind it.
This is a bit of a spoiler, but worth mentioning:
Sophie is not a virgin widow, but she is a close cousin to the virgin widow: a widow with little experience. Microscopic levels of experience, in fact. So while she's experienced in terms of her emotions and her ability to know herself — she's lived through war, mourning, and all the confusing swirls of society in London — she's rather inexperienced sexually. Her innocence and lack of understanding of intimacy is a palpable thing, even though socially she can stand up for herself. Her inexperience is a contrast to the rest of her wisdom and candor.
Nathaniel is not an obvious alpha hero, really, but neither is he a beta hero. He's got to make some sizeable changes in his life and his attitude, but he also makes some very big bungling mistakes that he has to fix. He has take-charge moments and moments where he screws up and moments where he allows others to take the lead.
This is a quiet, character-driven story with a minor asshat villain. The conflict between Nathaniel and Sophie outlasts the negative influence of the external antagonist by a few chapters, and watching Nathaniel come to appreciate Sophie more and more was one of my favorite parts of the book.
As I said, I could still see flaws even as I loved reading. If Sophie weren't so determined to handle everything on her own, much of the problems she faces could have been fixed in a matter of a few pages. If she'd be as actually honest and forthright as she pretends to be with her friends, she'd be ok. But Sophie is convinced she has to protect herself and her husband's family, and by extension the Horsemen Boy Band, even though they would find the idea of anyone protecting them completely ludicrous. By the time all is revealed, the conflicts and secrets themselves are not so great that they can't be overcome, but I understood Sophie's determination to handle everything herself, even when she couldn't.
You'll notice some very contemporary worldviews about certain issues among the characters, and there's not a lot of high angst and drama, which I liked. And there are some moments during the sex scenes that made me go all kinds of 0_o, such as when Sophie orgasms and promptly falls asleep, leaving Nathaniel to, ahem, finish his business while she's sleeping. No. Really.
When she was quiet and relaxed and—yes, asleep beneath him, he lifted some of his weight off her again and worked to his own quieter, but utterly satisfying release. Before disengaging and moving to her side, he saw that her eyes were open, watching him sleepily.
“Sophie?” He took her hand in his and raised it to his lips. “It was good?”
She did not answer him. The side of her head burrowed warmly against his shoulder. She was asleep again.
DUDE. DUUUUUDE. Seriously. What the helly hell?
I had the hardest time figuring that scene out. He's not mean or callous in the story. He's not trying to take advantage of her or assault her, and he's not predatory at all. I honestly stumbled over that scene while reading it, and again while writing this review, and am still not sure what the hell the point was.
A few words about the digital version on sale for $1.99. You will never guess. OCR scanning errors? HOW DID YOU GUESS?!
There's the momentary surprise subplot about real estate:
They had coupled together—realty together—two separate times.
There's also a rather startling mention in passing of what might be a foot fetish:
And he could see and feet—and smell—last night’s lover and know beyond any doubt that he wished to continue the liaison.
And there's a handful of other errors from what I presume is scanning, and gosh they make me cranky.
But back to the story. I really, really liked it. Sophie has real worries, but she's determined to make the best of her life as it is. She has real friendships and relationships with other characters – as does Nathaniel. All the very familiar hallmarks of historical romance are there: an innocent heroine, a worldly hero hoisted by his own petard, a merry boy bands of heroes, plus the expected fashion, shopping, society visits and ballrooms filled with people. It's all very familiar and comforting – much like Nathaniel finds Sophie. But Sophie is older, she's a widow with a somewhat ambiguous social status, and she befriends another woman who is also a bit older than most of the debutaunts. There's a little something different and unique about everyone in the story. Even with the flaws and a handful of cliches, because Balogh's writing is so good and her development of character so skilled, the familiar didn't become tiresome. This was a most excellent $2.00 well-spent.