Alternate Title: Ho For Show
The Chick: Belinda Hamilton. After an obsessed and unwelcome suitor destroyed her family's finances and living on the streets ruined her future, the formerly virtuous finishing-school teacher decides to become a courtesan. Luckily for her, on her first foray on the open market (so to speak), she hooks up with the honorable Duke of Hawkescliff, a man who will pay her to pretend to be his mistress while they smoke out a killer.
The Rub: Although both agree to a no-sex clause in their arrangement, Bel ends up falling for Hawkescliff's virtue and steadfastness. However, thanks to scars from her past she's terrified of the act of lovemaking.
Dream Casting: Romola Garai.
The Dude: Robert Knight, Duke of Hawkescliff. For years he repressed his love for his oldest friend's wife, and when her husband informs him he suspects his nephew Dolph might have killed her, Robert thinks the best way to squeeze Dolph into confessing is to pretend a courtship with the object of Dolph's obsessive affection: Belinda Hamilton.
The Rub: While Robert believes himself morally superior to paying for sex from a dolled-up whore, he ends up enjoying Belinda's company far more than he anticipated. But, as a prominent Tory politician, can he afford to jeopardize his sterling reputation by involving Belinda in a deeper commitment?
Dream Casting: Richard Armitage.
Earl of Coldfell: Dude, you loved my wife - now avenge her death!
Robert: Yes, sir!
Dolph, Suspected Murderer: Belinda, Belinda, Belinda, Belinda, Belinda. I love Belinda. Can't wait to marry Belinda.
Belinda: Oh, did I mention? I'm a courtesan now.
Dolph: WHAT. THE. HELL.
Robert: *lightbulb!* Miss Hamilton, want to kill two revenge birds with one stone? Let's team up! ..............only without sex.
Belinda: Thank goodness he doesn't want to have sex! I'm terrified!
Robert: Thank goodness I don't have to have sex! I have morals!
Belinda: *prepares dinner* *dresses pretty* *hosts parties* Who knew? I like being a political hostess!
Robert: *buys Belinda fancy presents* *takes her on drives* Who knew? I like making my fake girlfriend happy!
Belinda and Robert: Oh shit, we're perfect for each other!
Robert: But I can't marry you, I have a reputation!
Belinda: But I can't be your mistress if you're married!
Every Other Character in the Book: Robert - DON'T BE AN ASS.
Robert: Fine, let's get married!
Romance Convention Checklist
1 Ho fo' Sho'
3 Hos for Reals (Harriette Wilson and her sisters!)
2 Precocious Children
2 Precocious Siblings
1 Loving but Still Neglectful Parent
1 Loving but Still Slutty Parent (deceased)
1 "No Sex" Agreement Doomed to Failure
1 Fancy Coach and Four
1 Case of Muuuuuuuuuuurder
2 Romantically Lacklustre Rivals
1 Secondary Romance
1 Royal Ass-Whupping as Punishment of Rape
The Word: Well, who knew I'd find another great author right before I'm set to attend the RWA National Conference that she'll be attending? Murphy's Law, right? I hope my luggage can handle the extra weight of books. I've had this book on my TBR pile for a while now, and after reading an excellent book by an author I knew (Jo Goodman), I decided to pick up a book by an author I didn't. And what a good lucky dip it was!
Robert Knight, Duke of Hawkescliff, is an honourable man. When he fell in love with the much-younger wife of his old friend, the Earl of Coldfell, he did nothing about it. When Lucy, the wife, dies under mysterious circumstances, Coldfell tells Robert he suspects foul play and the person responsible for it. However, as he's too elderly to exact revenge himself, he trusts Robert with the task, explaining his strong suspicions that his wastrel nephew and heir Dolph Breckinridge did it to prevent Lucy from conceiving a child that would have deprived him of his inheritance.
Belinda Hamilton used to be a virtuous woman - that is, until Dolph Breckinridge set his sights on her. When she refused his attentions, he had her father thrown in prison for debt. When she found work as a finishing-school teacher, he had her fired. Reduced to working as an orange girl in the streets, penniless and friendless thanks to Dolph, she's eventually raped by her father's prison warden. Thinking her last precious possession (her virtue) has been stolen, she believes there's no point in guarding her reputation any longer. However, she would rather swallow glass than marry Dolph, so she decides to stick it to Dolph and get some ready cash to spring her father at the same time by asking the famous Harriette Wilson (a real-life courtesan who counted Wellington among her lovers) to train her as a courtesan.
Robert first meets Belinda when she's just finished her training as a courtesan. She's well on her way to charming the pants off all the eligible men in London, but she hasn't chosen an official protector yet. Robert, after ingratiating himself with Dolph in an attempt to sneak a confession out of him, discovers Dolph's obsession with Belinda. The brute is outraged when he discovers "his" woman would rather be a whore than marry him, and Robert sees an opportunity to put the screws to Dolph and send him over the edge: if he becomes Belinda's protector, he'll have something important enough to hold over Dolph that just might be worth confessing to murder for.
Robert approaches Belinda, offering to be her protector. Belinda is immediately attracted to him - not only is he handsome and rich, but he has a reputation for honour and integrity and is unmarried (Belinda, for all that she's a courtesan, still struggles with the idea of competing with a wife). She even agrees with his political views! The arrangement promises to be mutually beneficial in all sorts of ways: both of them want revenge against Dolph Breckinridge, and Robert, far too upstanding and moral to really use a courtesan, promises to pay and treat Belinda like a mistress without bedding her like one. Belinda, still traumatized from her rape, thinks this is an awesome idea.
However, the wonderful joy of this novel comes from how this plan goes horribly, horribly wrong. While both Robert and Belinda work hard to maintain the appearance of being a loving couple, neither of them plan on how much they end up enjoying it - Robert particularly. Rigidly moral in his views, he sneers at the general idea of mistresses and courtesans, but he quickly discovers he loves spending time pleasing Belinda and surprising her with presents. One of my favourite scenes is when he buys her a carriage and horses and his boyish "aw, shucks" reaction to Belinda's delight.
Belinda, meanwhile, to repay Robert, goes above and beyond the tasks of a mistress - arranging his household, hosting parties, tuning his instrument (his piano, you pervs!), and discovers the same thing - she loves helping him and making him comfortable. The greater part of the novel is how Robert and Belinda have to deal with their immediately happy feelings around each other - the murder mystery is pretty much a flimsy piece of fluff designed to bring the protagonists together.
And I loved the protagonists. Robert's mother was Georgiana Knight, the "Hawkescliff Harlot," a woman who gave her husband two legitimate children (Robert and his baby sister Jacinda) but produced four other sons from her adulterous liaisons. Robert grew up watching how his mother's antics unmanned his father and was determined to live a moral life. So, yes, he's a righteous, proud, upstanding prude. But he's not mean about it, and that's the kicker. Even though he disapproves of courtesans and mistresses, he never goes out of his way to bludgeon Belinda with his dislike and he treats her with courtesy and kindness. It was delightful to watch how easily he jumped down from his high horse whenever Belinda needed him to - when he finally does find out Belinda's painful secret, his actions are immediate, hella bad ass, and definitely don't adhere to any rulebook.
Similarly, Belinda is not "oh woe is me" about being a courtesan - while she wishes life had been different, she had reasons for her choice and accepts the consequences. Ultimately she wishes she hadn't had to become a courtesan - but she doesn't reject the wealth and fancy gowns and presents that Robert gives her as being "bought with sin" or some crap. She doesn't reject or resent Robert as the man who's paying for her affections, either. She needs the money, Robert is kind enough to give it to her, and she's creative enough to repay him with her hostessing skills and public attentions. This is not a romance where the hero and heroine meet, instantly dislike each other, and proceed to insult and belittle each other until they fall into bed.
Really, nearly the whole novel impressed me - Gaelen Foley does a great job integrating the history of the period into the story. Several real-life personages appear - politicians, artists, courtesans - and their inclusion in the story makes sense and adds to the historical atmosphere rather than seeming like convenient name-dropping. Robert is a prominent politician, therefore it makes sense when he meets real-life ministers and dignitaries. Similarly, as a prominant courtesan, Belinda naturally would deal with Harriette Wilson and her sisters and their famous lovers and hangers-on.
This novel would have been a perfect A if not for the third act, which sagged a bit as the conflict ran out of steam. We get some waffling from the hero, some laboured justifications for Robert's slutty mum (that don't totally redeem her, in my opinion), and some last-minute conflict resolutions. Otherwise, though, this was a lovely novel with refreshingly open and loving characters.