If anyone remembers the first time they read Devil’s Bride, the book one in the now legendary Cynster series by Stephanie Laurens, I’m sure they can picture the sweet scene where the children of the family go to say goodbye at the graveside of their brother and cousin Tolly, the littlest ones struggling with the walk in the night as Devil and Honoria look on, restraining themselves from helping lest it ruin the ceremony. I don’t know how old this makes you feel (Devil’s Bride was originally published in 1998), but I end up with the impression that the Cynsters are somehow an extension of my own family, particularly with the realization that these youngest members are all grown up and ready for their own romance novels.
And Then She Fell is the first in the spin-off series the Cynster Sisters Duo (two books still attached to the Cynster series – this is the nineteenth book) focusing on the two youngest daughters of Arthur and Louise – Henrietta and Mary – sisters to twins Amanda and Amelia (On a Wild Night and On a Wicked Dawn) and Simon (The Perfect Lover). Of all these books, Simon’s story in The Perfect Lover is probably the most crucial to read prior to this one, as the hero to Henrietta Cynster is none other than James Glossup, the younger son of the house and murder suspect in the country house party mystery that provides the setting for Simon and Portia to fall in love with one another. (Anyone needing a series overview should take a look at my post on the entire Cynster series for a refresher.)
Henrietta is in her late twenties having never quite found her hero and to be honest, she’s not looking that hard, a fact immensely frustrating to her younger sister Mary. Mary’s rising blood pressure relates to the belief that she thinks she has possibly found her hero but can’t verify the fact until the amethyst necklace blessed by the Lady and given to the girls by Catriona Cynster (wife to Scandal Cynster and a Scottish pagan whose story is told in Scandal’s Bride). This necklace has been used to good effect by their cousins in the Cynster Sister’s Trilogy and Mary knows that Henrietta must use it first since she’s older. The necklace heats up in the presence of the man destined to be the fated mate of the Cynster woman, thus directing her efforts. At Mary’s insistence, Henrietta dons the necklace and the games begin.
Known as the “Matchbreaker”, Henrietta has garnered quite a reputation for using her vast network of contacts within the ton to research a young man upon request of a young lady considering his suit, often discovering sordid habits, shifting finances or simply conformation of it not being a love match. That final point seems to be a common request as it has become more fashionable for well-born young women to want to marry for love. When a good friend of hers asks Henrietta to check on James Glossup, a suitor who has been making his preference for her known, Henrietta is forced to come back with the information that James has some kind of financial imperative to marry and doesn’t seem to be factoring love into the equation. A bit wistful, the friend and her parents are nevertheless grateful for averting a mismatch and James is nicely sent packing.
Naturally, he’s livid at getting his conge and angrily approaches Henrietta in a crowded ballroom. What Henrietta didn’t know was that James has unexpectedly received an inheritance from a great-aunt who wanted to ensure that the bachelor would knuckle down and get married, so he must marry within the month in order to release the funds which would allow him to support the estate and everyone on it. His noblesse oblige has him frantic to follow the stipulations of the will so as not to put hundreds of people out of work and Henrietta’s interference has botched everything. He doesn’t seem to hear too well Henrietta’s empathetic explanation that, since her friend wanted to marry for love and James clearly didn’t love her, it wouldn’t have worked anyway, but in the end, the soft-hearted Henrietta makes James a compelling offer. She will use her contacts to help him find a bride within the allotted time period.
Spending time with Henrietta pointing out the eligible young woman who fit his criteria and who she knows of are good character and temperament allows James to decide fairly quickly that his perfect match is actually standing right next to him. The emotion for this decision is ratcheted up by a series of what seem like accidents befalling Henrietta, accidents which are quickly revealed to be a pattern of attacks by an unknown foe. Every Cynster relation and Cynster friend come out of the woodwork to help (so reread the series and the Bastion Club books if you want to not be scratching your head remembering who’s who) constituting a type of Old Home Week for fans of Stephanie Laurens. Naturally the bad guy doesn’t have a chance, and James and Henrietta get their happily ever after, with Mary the happy recipient of the necklace and the next book in the series.
And let me make clear how much I am looking forward to the next book, The Taming of Ryder Cavanaugh. And Then She Fell is solid Stephanie Laurens fare, but like many of her recent publications, she veers away from her strength, namely the utterly wicked rake ensnared completely and utterly by the spunky heroine. Laurens’ ability to write honorable rakes nevertheless well-schooled in the arts of debauchery seemed to lessen after The Perfect Lover, highlighting her weaknesses (plodding mystery plots and ridiculous prose for the sex scenes that could easily win a purple prose award).
In the Cynster Sisters Trilogy, I was so excited as Viscount Breckenridge, no slouch in the rake department (as realized in the book about his young widowed stepmother, The Ideal Bride) fit this hero mold, but the setting of the book being on the road as he runs down Heather Cynster’s kidnappers, failed to highlight his rakish tendencies in Viscount Breckenridge to the Rescue. Instead it took the utterly alpha male villain-turned-hero on his home turf in Scotland to give us a little taste of the old Stephanie Laurens in The Capture of the Earl of Glencrae.
Based on the teaser chapter, Ryder Cavanaugh fits the mold of our original Bar Cynster (the virile and deliciously naughty males comprising the first six books of the series). He’s fascinated by the headstrong Mary Cynster who seems to think that Ryder’s half-brother is her intended hero. Ryder is taken not just by Mary’s beauty but her spunk, a quality not well-appreciated by the ton and an attribute that actually renders her a complete mismatch for Ryder’s younger brother, who would let a strong woman ride roughshod over him. That he clearly sees her as a prize – she is the last unwed Cynster female of her generation and therefore the last opportunity for any family to make a connection to this powerful family – is apparent, but we know Laurens’ tried and true method of falling “in lust” first and love second will prevail. Since this rake’s “prowling grace” and naughty past was alluded to in the teaser, and since it hints at the majority of the book happening on his home turf in the ballrooms of the ton, I’m hoping that Laurens will play to her strengths and give us an alpha hero of yore.
Let me be clear – I think Stephanie Laurens is an immensely talented writer who has given the romance world one of the best Regency series ever, but I worry that over the course of now twenty years of her career, she has lacked editors or agents encouraging her to evolve as a writer. I recently listened to a few RWA conference sessions and was struck by the number of highly successful New York Times best-selling authors who mention that they continue to take classes and read professional books to evolve as writers, forcing themselves to read all the recent award winners in order to understand what the market wants.
When I read Laurens’ books, I am often struck by how outdated they can seem, particularly in the area of sex scenes which I felt were such a strength in her early works. I would encourage her to consider playing on her prodigious abilities (well-drawn characters, strong historical settings, and an unbelievable sense of family) while shoring up her weaknesses in order to make sure that she doesn’t get left behind with all the great historical romance writers emerging on the market. Don’t get left behind, Stephanie. We love you and these characters way too much to watch that happen.