June 2013, European Historical Romance (1819 London)
Harlequin Historical, $6.50, 283 pages, Amazon ASIN 0373297416 Part of a series
A Reputation for Notoriety was an enjoyable, quick read that was tightly plotted and well written. The hero and heroine were both pleasantly less stereotypical than your usual gorgeous alpha-male and widow-fallen-on-hard-times, and I felt that the emotional connection between them seemed honest and more likely to last as a result. The story is immediately engaging and well-paced, although I did have a few quibbles with the direction that was taken in the later part of the book.
John Rhysdale (Rhys) is the bastard son of the Earl of Westleigh, who refused to acknowledge him or have anything to do with him, to the point of condemning him to penury after the death of Rhys’ mother when he was just fourteen.
Rhys was reduced to a life on the streets and managed to keep body and soul together when he discovered a talent not just for gambling, but for gambling and winning. Now a wealthy man, he is approached – completely unexpectedly – by his two half-brothers, William, Viscount Neddington (usually referred to as “Ned”), and Hugh, who have turned to him in desperation. Westleigh has brought his family to the brink of ruin, and they need money quickly if they are to have any hope of making a last-ditch effort to save the family from financial disaster. Ned and Hugh have figured out that a gaming club, run properly, could turn a profit quickly, and knowing of Rhys’ skill at the tables, approach him with a business proposition. They will use the last of their funds to purchase a suitable establishment and want Rhys to run it for them. Initially, Rhys wants nothing to do with it, but the prospect proves too tempting. Once he adds his own stipulation - that his father will acknowledge him publicly - he agrees to their proposal.
Lady Celia Gale is a widow who is left to support her adult stepdaughter and spiteful mother-in-law. The elder Lady Gale does nothing but complain about Celia’s penny-pinching ways and insult her at every opportunity, while Celia is doing her utmost to keep them solvent and to ensure that Adele has a Season and the chance to make a good match.
Celia’s father was a gambler whose love of gaming went far beyond mere liking and into addiction. Her late husband also frequented the tables and indulged himself in many other vices. Celia can see no other way to stave off penury for herself, Adele, and the dowager, than by utilizing her own skill with the cards. Even though she is continually worried that she may end up as her father did – addicted to cards, dice and any and all games of chance - she dons a cloak and mask and makes her way to The Masquerade Club.
She immediately attracts Rhys’ notice (and that of many of the other patrons), and it is not long before the acquaintance struck between them turns into friendship. Then one night, after Celia has had an uncharacteristically bad run of luck, Rhys impulsively offers her employment. Her presence at the club has generated a lot of interest and he believes she will be good for business, as the men who surround her are likely to gamble more, and that once word spreads, her presence and continued anonymity may encourage other women to attend. Before long, Celia becomes known as “Lady Fortune,” and many of the male members of the club are anxious to play with the intriguing, masked woman who, it is rumored, is the paramour of the club’s owner.
One of the things I really liked in the story was that Rhys was completely honest with Celia about his desire for her. He liked her as a person, enjoyed her company, and came to feel comfortable with her before asking her to share his bed. He also made it clear that the decision was hers and that if she turned him down he wasn’t going to renege on the business part of their relationship. Celia is most definitely tempted. She had been married at seventeen to a man chosen for her who turned out to be brutish and unpleasant, and since his death her life she has been weighed down by responsibility. I don’t normally like the “If I turn this guy down, I may never have the chance to experience hot-monkey-sex” trope, but it just about worked here. The heroine, while she hasn’t had particularly pleasant sexual experiences, isn’t a blushing virgin with a reputation to risk, but a widow who can thus be allowed more a little more lassitude in her intimate relationships. And she does think that yes, the hot monkey sex would be nice.
So Rhys and Celia embark upon a discreet affair. As they get to know each other better, it’s clear that they have an emotional affinity based on more than their involvement in gambling. At one point, Rhys tells Celia a little of his past, that he was on the streets at fourteen, and had no one and nothing – and she realizes how well she knows that feeling. Rhys had to be completely self-dependent when little more than a boy, and Celia when she was not much older – with the added necessity to always be the strong one, the one on whom everyone else is dependent and yet have nobody with whom to share her burdens.
In Celia’s other life as a respectable widow, she has been accompanying Adele to various society events. At one of these, Adele meets Viscount Neddington, and the pair are instantly attracted to each other. The dowager is not amused, however, having decided that Adele should marry her cousin, now the holder of the baronetcy.
Meanwhile, Rhys is now insistent that his father fulfill the last part of their bargain, which is that before he will release any of the funds generated by the Masquerade Club, Westfield should acknowledge him as his natural son.
Like the boulder rolling ever closer to Indiana Jones, you can see what’s coming a mile off – and this is one of my (fortunately few) complaints about the book. There were one or two coincidences too many in the storyline which meant that I could hear the anvils clanging a mile off. There was also one rather large inconsistency that had me scratching my head. Right at the beginning of the book, the author establishes that Rhys closely resembles his two half-brothers:
… if he [Rhys] stood side-by-side with these two men, who could ever deny they were brothers?
And yet Celia, despite having seen Neddington several times, both at the club and elsewhere, and having seen him talking with Rhys (which I take to mean they were standing “side-by-side”), never once remarks on the resemblance between them and never notices their resemblance to Westfield, with whom she is coming into regular (and repugnant) contact at the club.
Rhys and Celia eventually run into each other socially – at a ball held by the Westfield’s to “welcome” Rhys to the family – and are stunned to see each other there. It’s after this that things between them begin to go downhill, as Celia, learning of Rhys’ connection to the Westfield family, begins to draw away from him. Years earlier, the Earl of Westfield had called out her father over a gambling dispute and killed him, and she cannot bear the thought of being associated with him in any way.
While I felt that the romance in the book was a mature one, with both parties responsible for making decisions as to the nature of their relationship, this aspect – Celia’s willingness to give up the man she loves because of who his father is – struck a false note with me. While I can imagine that it would be a nasty shock to discover that your lover is the bastard son of the man who killed your father, it felt to me as though Celia was cutting off her nose to spite her face, which just didn’t sit right with her usual level-headedness.
The dowager Lady Gale is utterly poisonous and I have to say that at times I just wished Celia would boot the old cow out on her ear. All she ever did was moan and belittle Celia who was, after all, keeping her out of the poorhouse. I admit she did make rather a lip-smacking villainess, but I’m not sure she wasn’t just a little bit over the top. And while Adele was initially presented as being sweet, kind, and generous, she turned out to be not much better than the mother-in-law from hell. When Adele found out about Celia’s relationship with Rhys, she immediately believed the worst of the woman who had been her friend and champion against the dowager and who was paying for the roof over her head, the food on the table and all her new dresses. Adele accused Celia of ruining her chances in society because of her dreadfully improper behavior and then refused to speak to her. At that point, I could quite happily have booted her out on her judgmental arse, too!
Somewhere in the last third or so of the book, I thought the story became so much more focused on Westfield and his schemes and machinations that it detracted somewhat from the romance. The relationship that had been built up so beautifully earlier in the book was suddenly sidelined so that when Rhys and Celia were finally united, it felt rather anticlimactic. I will, however, allow extra points for the innovative way that Ms. Gaston found to avert the duel between Rhys and Westfield.
But despite those reservations, I found A Reputation for Notoriety to be well written and emotionally satisfying, and would definitely recommend it.
-- Caz Owens
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