This is a book you can TOTALLY judge by it’s cover. It is exactly as crazysauce as it promises. You got your brooding marquis, you have a deul gone weird, you have a cross-dressing kidnapping plot, you have a Plot Moppet, and SURPRISE PREGNANCY. It’s a classical Old Skool romance.
I kind of loved it, even as I was rolling my eyes super hard.
We open with Alison, who is dressed as a ragamuffin boy, engaged in a plot with her brother and their manservant Morgan to kidnap the Marquis of Chatham in order to prevent said Marquis from dueling with their oldest brother over the oldest brother’s horrible wife. Surprisingly, they actually do manage to kidnap the Marquis, who is as brooding and surly as is required by these types of books. They chain him to a bed (he can still get up and move around a bit, but he’s tethered) and Alison, being the half-sister of an Earl, “cooks.” (“I stole our cook’s book, and I’ve watched her some this week, it doesn’t look that hard!”)
Now, even though the whole pack of them- Alison, both brothers, and Justin, all grew up together under the watchful eye of Morgan, they manage to keep Justin from realizing who they are. He thinks this is about ransom, and he’s going to exact his revenge, hang on end of rope, blah blah blah, etc etc. When they do start the process of letting him go, things go pear-shaped and he ends up taking Alison with him, having sussed out that she’s a girl with a delectable body. So he’s going to hang on to her until he gets bored and then get back to the hanging and defenstration and whatnot.
They stop at an inn, telling the innkeeper that Alison is Justin’s son and a habitual runaway, and then the sexytimes commence, in true Old Skool pretty rapey fashion. In the morning, Alison gets up, shreds his clothes, ties him to the bed before he wakes up, and steals his horse and makes it home. (I was really quite impressed with the gumption she showed in this moment.)
Then we cut to Justin 3 months later, where, poor boy, he just hasn’t been able to get it up for anyone else. Because his Mighty Wang has found its own Magic HooHaw and that’s just how that goes. He has still not discovered the identity of the people who kidnapped him, until Morgan shows up at his London townhouse looking for blood. Why? Come on, you know the answer to this. Because Alison is pregnant. Because of course she is.
So there’s a bunch of conversation that happens while Justin is sure that the WHOLE KIDNAPPING PLAN was for Alison to trap him into marriage, and oh, he’ll marry her, because he won’t let his kid be born a bastard. But by god, he’s not happy about it. (There’s a brief moment where Alison’s oldest brother’s horrible wife gives her a name of a doctor who will perform an abortion, but Alison decides she can’t kill her baby. When Justin finds out about that, he’s pretty horrified.)
They marry in a really shitty ceremony where the officiant is drunk and Justin is determined to punish her for trapping him into marriage and then they get to his house and engage in sexytimes. Alison is into it, and then decideds that feeling pleasure means she’s a horrible sinner, and basically jumps out of a window to run away. She and Morgan and a Plot Moppet they picked up on the street run off to a tiny village in god knows where and hide out there for another 3-4 months. Justin finds them by having his Man of Business and Contracted Out Nefarious Deeds (that’s a job! I could do that job. Someone hire me to do that job) keep an eye on the pawn shops and sees where Morgan pawned one of Alison’s mother’s jewels.
SO HE KIDNAPS HER RIGHT BACK. That’s how you know it’s love. His and hers kidnappings. Should be on every wedding registry.
Eventually, he figures out that the reason he was kidnapped in the first place was to prevent a duel that was never going to take place- yes, he and Oldest Brother got into an argument, but they Used Their Words and didn’t actually plan to duel. There is an Actual Duel that takes place between Oldest Brother and his wife’s current paramour, and it has a staggeringly high body count that no one seems to care too much about. And Oldest Brother’s Horrible Wife dies of a “botched” abortion.
Anyway, it turns out that all the woe these families have been suffering over the past generation or so has been a result of Alison’s uncle’s machinations (he is also the father of Oldest Brother’s horrible wife). He killed both the previous Earls, and was trying to kill off Oldest Brother so he could get the title. (There’s a whole subplot about Oldest Brother marrying Horrible Wife and then leaving for America basically the next day, and his coming back sets everything into motion.) Uncle kidnaps Alison and basically needs to be hunted down and killed off, but not before confessing that he paid off the doctor to fuck up his own daughter’s abortion so she couldn’t tell on him.
It’s all as confusing as it sounds.
Anyway, our happily ever after comes when the baby comes, so all this nonsense takes place in the span of one human gestation period plus one week. Yay!
First, a construction problem. Justin never really differentiated himself as a character because Brandt kept switch between “The Marquis” “Justin” “Milord” and “Chatham” in the text. Not in dialogue, in the text. Pick one. Please. Also he just brooded and raged a lot, but I’m used to that.
Yes, this is Old Skool rapey, and hangs a lampshade on that by having Justin say, when Oldest Brother is pissed about Justin rape of Alison, “Dude, it wasn’t rape by the end, I assure you.” Orgasm does not equal not-rape. However, this book does lay it out on the line that this is how Alison lets herself learn about sexual pleasure. She’s convinced that because she’s a vicar’s daughter (her mother’s second husband) she needs to be as sin-free as possible. And while she doesn’t know much about men and women, but she’s pretty certain about pleasure being sinful. It isn’t until she’s experienced it, run away, had time to process and then have a discussion about it with Justin that she realizes that maybe it’s not that sinful (and the acrobatic sex they get up to while she’s at least 7 or 8 months pregnant is impressive, I must say). We’ve discussed before how this device gives blame-free (in the narrative) sexual awakening to a heroine that wouldn’t have been allowed to have one, so… it’s a thing. It happened.
I read Old Skool for the crazy melodrama. That’s what makes it fun! His and hers kidnappings! Overly dramatic revalations of love that come out of COMPLETELY NOWHERE! Dressing as a boy! Plot moppets that show up for two scenes, including one where he scoffs that paying a shilling for a hit job means you're overpaying. Misunderstandings that, in the world of the more realistic historicals being written today would be just beyond the pale, but in this book? Just go with it. Just what it says on the tin: crazy sauce!