I’m pretty sure that Goodreads suggested Jennifer Ashley‘s book, The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie, to me after I rated Sarah Maclean‘s work so highly on its site. I was a little skeptical that I would enjoy a Victorian romance (a lot of them are very tame or just a little boring), but the reviewers raved about her writing so I had to give it a try.
She blew me out of the water! Jennifer paints not only a vivid historical scene, but crafts characters who live and breathe (and in the case of the Mackenzie men, you are packing a bag ready to run away with them before you catch yourself with the reminder that they are CHARACTERS, ahem).
Approaching the first book in the Highland Pleasures series (what a well-named series as it gives so much pleasure to readers) I was very skeptical about a writer pulling off an autistic hero, for that is Lord Ian’s madness – he lives with autism and in his day and age is considered quite mad as a result. The brutal honesty and laser-like intelligence his condition inspires causes discomfort among society members and he has suffered greatly at the hands of the late Duke his father, who was (let’s get it out of the way) a huge bastard who tortured his children physically and emotionally.
All the boys are damaged from their childhoods, but they care about each other deeply. Beth Ackerley is a young widow who, through circumstances and sheer pluck, has risen from impoverished beginnings to have a tidy fortune. She is kind, beautiful and a little lonely, and has recently become engaged. Ian takes one look at her at the opera and decides to clue her in on the true nature of her fiancee, giving her a few breathless kisses for good measure. Beth breaks off her engagement after convincing herself that Ian was just playing with her and decides to celebrate her new freedom by living it up a little in Paris, where Ian just happens to be visiting his brother, Mac. Naturally, Ian takes up his pursuit of Beth, particularly after she moves in with Mac’s estranged wife Isabella, who also happens to be in Paris.
Ian realizes that Beth both stirs and soothes him and together they have a variety of sexual adventures while acknowledging a strong emotional connection. (The carriage scene where Beth lavishes a particular type of attention on Ian is knee-weakeningly hot!) But Ian has a secret in his past, one that deals with courtesans and murder and when Beth realizes that there is no way the Ian she loves is guilty of this crime, she will stop at nothing to find proof of his innocence.
Beth is as honest as Ian and just as out of sync with society, although she’s learned to fake her way through it. The chemistry between her and Ian is en fuego and the reader is successfully introduced to our cast of characters – the cold older brother, Hart (the current Duke), Lord Cameron Mackenzie (a horse trainer and father to teenager Daniel Mackenzie), and talented painter Lord Mac Mackenzie and his estranged but beautiful wife, the Lady Isabella.
In Lady Isabella’s Scandalous Marriage, Jennifer Ashley cleverly gives us the back story of Mac and Isabella at the beginning of chapters using the newspaper articles which chronicled their courtship and marriage as well as through the characters’ memories.
Isabella met and eloped with Mac on the night of her debut, but while there was plenty of passion and love between them, Mac’s abuse of alcohol eventually led to their estrangement. With his brother Ian giving him a swift dose of reality, Mac realizes that his art is suffering not because he gave up drinking, but because he is still desperately in love with his wife (to whom he has been relentlessly faithful, thank heavens). When she approaches him with the information that there are paintings being passed off as his around town, he uses the ensuing investigation to insinuate himself back into her life and make amends.
Isabella has been incredibly hurt by Mac and doesn’t know if she can trust him even though she’s never stopped loving him. With Ian and Beth as a warm family influence, she begins to take steps to confront their shared past and come to terms with loving the new Mac who no longer looks to a bottle for escape.
This book was particularly gut wrenching. Anyone who has had a loved one wrestle with addiction knows the psychological damage the people around them suffer and the reader can’t help but empathize with both Mac and Isabella. Seeing a happy Ian and Beth add to the depth of the knowledge and progresses the family’s story a little more.
In the hotness stakes, following Ian in close second is horse trainer Cameron Mackenzie, the second oldest son. In The Many Sins of Lord Cameron, we discover that Cam dealt with his childhood by marrying a beautiful, well-born woman who makes the girl in Swimfan look like the poster child for a healthy relationship. We would diagnose her today as a nymphomaniac with probably a host of other disorders, but in Cam’s day, all he knew is that he had a crazy wife who threw her affairs in his face.
He would have been happy to divorce her except she got pregnant and at a time when he knew it was his baby. After his son Daniel was born, Cam tried to keep Daniel safe from his mother who turned her twisted anger toward the little boy. Taking on himself the horrible (and I mean, horrible) physical abuse she meted out time and again as a devil’s bargain for her to avoid hurting their child, the situation reached a crescendo when she committed suicide in front of Cam and Daniel. Cam was initially blamed for her death and that scandal has haunted him for years.
Not that he cares too much. Daniel is a roguish and handsome teenager following in his father’s footsteps when Cam is captivated by the appearance at Hart’s house party of one of Isabella’s schoolchums, Ainsley McBride Douglas, a young and beautiful widow. He had encountered Ainsley years before when she almost succumbed to his carnal charm but pulled herself away in time to remain faithful to her much-older husband. Cam has never forgotten her and now that she is fair game, she’s officially in his sights.
Ainsley is incredibly tempted by the affair Cam is offering, but in her impoverished state she is a lady-in-waiting to Queen Victoria who does not tolerate a breath of impropriety about her attendants. After a barely averted scandal in her youth, she also doesn’t want to disgrace her caring brothers who have always tried to do the best by her.
Even Daniel realizes what a catch she would make for his father, and after a really, really amazing carriage ride back from a party (I’m surprised the cushions didn’t burst into flame), Ainsley agrees to think about going away to Paris with Cam to have an affair. When she shows up, almost missing the train, Cam realizes that he can’t ruin the woman with whom he is half in love already, so he bullies her into marrying him in London before they head off to the continent, Daniel in tow.
They have a terrific time living in the fast lane but Ainsley realizes that Cam isn’t happy – he wants to be back with his beloved horses – and she isn’t happy with how she can’t sleep in the same bed at night with her husband because of the baggage he’s still toting around courtesy of his bitch late wife. Ainsley sets her sights on helping Cam with his problems while also working on a few plans for his happiness and, like all women who love Mackenzies, she’s a determined lassie indeed.
But what about Hart? In The Duke’s Perfect Wife, the oldest (and coldest) brother has become a manipulative and effective politician who is resigned to the feisty women his brothers have married. In reality, Hart has secretly worked hard to keep his brothers away from scandal and in reality saved their lives time and again from his late father.
Hart, however, suffers from a blistering arrogance which cost him his first and only love, Eleanor Ramsay, who gave him back his ring after his former mistress came to her hinting of Hart’s “dark desires” and a stable of women who serviced him. Rather than opening up to Eleanor and dealing with her anger, the young Hart attempted to bully and manipulate Eleanor into marrying him, which just proves how he didn’t really know her well at all.
They’ve both lived ten years apart, Hart having remarried and lost his bland young wife and infant son in childbirth and Eleanor making a quiet life with her impoverished father and his scientific writings. This current Duke of Kilmorgan doesn’t even bother asking himself if he can feel anything anymore, he’s just numb most of the time. That is, until Eleanor Ramsay in her threadbare, outdated clothing shows up on his doorstep, having been sent a nude photo of Hart (which she doesn’t mind looking at quite often). She’s worried he’s being blackmailed (not an unusual occurance for Mackenzies) and he decides to use her concern to employ her as a secretary while she “investigates” where the picture came from, keeping her close at hand – his hand (ahem).
I never doubted Jennifer Ashley as a writer, but this book is so important to the series. It’s easy in previous books to get frustrated with how high-handed Hart is, even while you know he loves his brothers. Through Eleanor – the one person who remembers the much more carefree, younger Hart – the reader sees the loving man who has pushed aside his own personality so he can channel his energy into political ambition and show his dead father that no amount of abuse could keep him from being a success.
But he’s not exactly happy, either. Spending time around Eleanor, the one person who is never intimidated or even cares when Hart gets angry, fires Hart’s blood and his emotions until he does what every Mackenzie male does, he railroads her marrying him after a compromising (but well worth it) time on a gypsy barge. Eleanor expends a lot of effort peeling back Hart’s layers and getting him to reveal his whole self (even those “dark desires”), all the while reassuring that she knows and loves exactly who he is.
This is a colossal series that I cannot rate high enough. It’s steamy with true love and romance in addition to being well-researched with characters that make you want to be a Mackenzie, for all their craziness. Jennifer Ashley writes under a few different names and has some other series (I enjoy her shifter series, too) but this is her best work. I’m eagerly awaiting the next two books in the series, The Seduction of Elliot McBride (Ainsley’s brother who was tortured in India and is trying to make a life back in England) and The Wicked Deeds of Daniel Mackenzie (cannot wait to hear Daniel’s story!!). Sadly, these two books aren’t due out until 2013, but Jennifer Ashley has plenty of other great books to read in the meantime. Check her out!
[Please note that I reviewed The Untamed Mackenzie - the novella featuring the illegitmate Mackenzie half-brother Lloyd Fellows and the mysterious death that brings Lady Louisa Scranton to his doorstep (and he's happy to have her there) - on September 13, 2013.]