Devourer of books with a preference for fiction. Quite good at competitive reading. Happily hoards books of all kinds. Gets stabby going too long without reading.
This is the first in a new series by Lorraine Heath, featuring the Hellions of Havisham. The first of these Hellions is Nicholson Lambert, the Duke of Ashebury. He lost his parents in a gruesome train accident and was sent to the country to be raised by the Marquess of Marsden. Along with him were the Earl of Grayling and his twin brother, orphaned in the same accident. Their parents appointed the Marquess of Marsden their guardian, unaware that Marsden was driven pretty much out of his mind after the death of his wife, leaving him in no fit state to raise even his own son, let alone three other boys. As a result, Ashebury and his three friends, close as brothers, were allowed to run entirely wild and as grown men, they all have quite the reputations.
The Earl of Grayling is the only one happily married, none of the other Hellions are intending to settle down or looking for spouses. Having seen how loss and heartbreak drove Marsden insane, Ashebury has no plans to ever allow himself to fall for a woman. He prefers to travel the world, exploring and adventuring, taking beautiful and striking photographs to document his journeys. When he's in London, he indulges in tasteful nude photography for his private collection, hoping that images of physical perfection may eventually supplant the nightmare visions of hideous, mangled bodies that he's haunted by.
Miss Miranda Dodger is the daughter of one of the richest men in England. Her enormous dowry has made her a favourite target for greedy gold diggers, so much so that she even wrote a book on how to spot and avoid fortune hunters. At the age of 28, she has yet to find a man who she trust actually likes her for who she is rather than the ridiculous amounts of money she'll bring to a marriage. With her father's head for business and very firm opinions, that she refuses to keep to herself, she's acquired a reputation as a fierce blue-stocking. She's also convinced that she's very plain and that no man would find her beautiful if she didn't have money. She despairs at ever finding the great love her parents or her brother and best friend share. She wants to experience passion, lose her virginity and feel desired. So she gains access to the Nightingale Club, where society ladies don masks to protect their identities and seek out lovers for uncomplicated liaisons. Miranda figures that the mask will not only protect her from scandal, but ensure that the gentleman in question sees only her, not her money. It will also allow her to feel more confident, as her homely features will be hidden.
Miranda and Ashe meet at the club. Ashe wants to photograph Miranda's ankles. She thinks he's gorgeous and is more than happy for him to be the man to deflower her. Posing for a naughty photograph, however, makes her nervous. When Ashe discovers that the mysterious Lady V is actually a virgin, he sends her home, saying she should spend her first time with someone she at least cares for, not a complete stranger. They do share a scorching kiss before they part, though.
Ashe becomes determined to discover the true identity of his mystery woman with the perfect ankles and it doesn't take him long before he's almost confident that the unconventional Miss Dodger and Lady V are one and the same. With every encounter, he becomes more and more interested in Miranda, and as he needs a wife to continue his family line, he decides the only one who will do is her. Of course, with so many fortune hunters having come before him, Ashebury has his work cut out for him. Can he convince the woman who literally wrote the book on fortune hunters that he's a genuine suitor?
This book has cameo appearances by a lot of characters from Heath's previous series, most notably her most recent one, the Scandalous Gentlemen of St.James. Miranda also appeared in those books, but now she gets to be the heroine in her own story. As this book also introduces the four Hellions of Havisham, there is quite a bit of back story given and some attention given to Ashebury's fellow Hellions, only one of whom is married (I do hope he doesn't lose his wife in some tragic accident, so as to make him an even more tortured hero later - dead parents AND beloved wife). I'm assuming that at least Ashebury's unmarried foster brothers will be heroes in later books, there's certainly a lot of interesting trauma in their pasts to make them suitable tortured hero fodder.
Ashebury was the eldest of the Hellions, I want to say he was about eight when his parents died. His last words to them was some variety of spoiled, angry shouting and naturally he feels terribly guilty that after he had a tantrum, they went and died gruesomely in a train accident. While he never saw their bodies, his imagination has more than amply provided nightmare fodder for him throughout his life. He tries to capture beautiful things in his photographs to try to drive the horror images out of his mind. It's also clear that all four boys experienced a lot of bad stuff due to Marsden's madness.
Miranda is a clever and engaging heroine, whose main flaw is that she's so convinced she's not pretty. I honestly don't remember if there is any real background to her conviction that she's so plain and unremarkable, or if it's just that Grace, her best friend is very pretty, and she feels homely in comparison. It's quite clear from the POV of everyone else that she's deluded on this point, and while she's not a diamond of the first water, she's certainly not some hideous troll either. Raised as the only girl in a household of brothers, Miranda is well-read and has a head for finances, happily advising her male friends and relatives on business ventures. Refusing to hide her brains and giggle demurely when she is out in public, she scares off a lot of men who want a nice biddable wife. Her massive dowry does more harm than good, as she's convinced (mostly from bitter experience) that it only attracts unscrupulous fortune hunters. I liked that she tried to take control of her own sexuality, but it also seemed realistic that she got cold feet when she was actually faced with jumping into bed with someone.
The main complication for the couple seemed a bit simplistic, and I'm surprised it took Ashebury quite as long as it did to figure out a solution. It seemed to me that what he came up with was the only sensible option and it would have saved a lot of time if he'd thought of it sooner.
Lorraine Heath's books can be a bit hit and miss. This one is definitely more of a hit. I liked both protagonists and am looking forward to seeing what is in store for the other Hellions in future.