It’s always a joy to find a historical author whose depiction of their chosen time period is so accurate and detail-rich that you feel immersed in the setting. I felt like I had hit the jackpot when I finally succumbed to the charms of Grace Burrows with Lady Jenny’s Christmas Portrait. Then Nina Rowan’s ‘Twas the Night Before Mischief restored my faith in Victorian romance not written by Jennifer Ashley (who is a goddess with her Highland Pleasures series). Therefore, it was an additional and unexpected pleasure to discover Elizabeth Essex via her holiday novella, The Scandal Before Christmas.
I read some intriguing reviews online about this plain-duckling-turns-swan novella and, since it fit into my December Read-a-Thon format, I thought I’d give it a try. Oh my gosh!! This is a hot, sweet story that burrows under your skin and lives there for a while afterward, and it’s a lovely feeling.
The Scandal Before Christmas lands between the third and fourth full-length novels in Essex’s The Reckless Brides series. Fans of the naval angle of Horatio Hornblower are going to want to definitely check this author out as she has a strong historical background in naval detail and many of her characters have ties to the British navy. Set amid the Napoleonic Wars, this is a hard-core navy setting (no pirate fluff here) as well as with the books being linked loosely via certain characters.
In fact, the hero of this novella served on the ship featured in the first book of the series, Almost a Scandal, where the heroine took her brother’s place to serve in the Navy and ends up falling for her superior officer. In The Scandal Before Christmas, Lieutenant Ian Worth is a victim of ill-fortune at the moment. His overbearing and heartless father Viscount Rainesford has always made his immediate heir tow the line, having dropped off second son Ian on the Navy’s doorstep when the boy was twelve and never looked back. Ian doesn’t exactly love the Navy, but it’s his career and he’s enjoyed the camaraderie of his shipmates while being able to indulge his licentious side when ashore. Unfortunately, he’s informed by his father that his older brother has had a horrible riding accident and appears to be paralyzed, negating any possibility of begetting heirs to inherit the title.
When his father tells him that Ian will have to honor his brother’s betrothal and marry the girl, the officer honed in over a decade of the Navy’s service balks, informing his father that he is already married. Not thrilled, his father nevertheless backs off and Ian is left with needing to get married in the next six days before shoving off for his next assignment. At least he’s got a plum channel dispatch job, which means he gets to return every couple of weeks to the home he loves, Gull Cottage, on the Isle of Wight. But where to find a wife when his experience is with opera singers and amenable barmaids?
Destiny provides an assisting hand when he’s joined in a tavern while drowning his sorrows by an old friend, Colonel Lesley. After hearing his predicament and asking Ian’s requirements – a quiet girl who won’t mind being left alone for long periods and who would shun the town amenities and social whirl – the good colonel informs him that his eldest daughter Anne would be perfect for him. Ian insists that Col. Lesley and his wife bring the girl to Gull Cottage so she can see what she would be getting and determine if she would like Ian enough to go through with the marriage. Ian just prays that he can be attracted to her enough to bed her.
The first glance isn’t promising. Anne Lesley is a plain, brown-haired, sober-gowned young woman who Ian mistook for her mother’s maid, but it’s possible she’s quiet because she can’t get a word in edgewise with such a garrulous mother. Her parents barely seem to notice she’s there and Ian can’t help but feel horribly disappointed at the thought of tying himself to such a plain mouse. Unfortunately, Anne overhears him saying so to his trusted manservant – and Ian realizes that he’s been overheard and feels horrible. In the process of apologizing to her, Ian makes a life-changing revelation, namely that Anne has a lot of impertinence and possibly passion bottled up inside of her, qualities which, when glimpsed in her eyes, suddenly bring her face to life. The chemistry that blazes up startles but pleases them both, but it’s uncertain if Ian can coax Anne to trust him amid all the lies to his father and his trampling over her feelings from the start. With the clock ticking, Ian must woo Anne to marry him to save his own hide while he also realizes that he must win her heart to save his own from breaking as he’s fallen for the woman who hides so much of herself from the world.
Okay, I haven’t read the other books in this series (a condition I will soon remedy) but I can’t imagine that it’s possible to not love Ian. He is such a straight shooter, saying exactly what he’s thinking and feeling, but he’s also actually quite a gentleman who spoke in frustration at his situation when he accidentally hurt Anne’s feelings in commenting on her first impression. Ian is also a glorious, sensual beast and exactly the right person to appreciate Anne’s bottled up thoughts and emotions, making him the perfect coach to teach her all the rules of physical love. Anne’s anger understandably stems from knowing she has to leave her family before she goes officially insane (how she managed all these years with that mother is a mystery) but knowing that she would not be considered worthy of the handsome son of a Viscount. Once she understands Ian’s predicament she is all empathy, helped along by his sensual kisses and great library (which includes some racy erotic books he’s happy to share).
This novella is hot and tender with the barest hint at the holiday. I loved both the hero and heroine and thought the secondary characters were drawn with exactly the right level of depth to enhance the story but never take it over. Historical detail and language was pitch perfect with some of Ian’s less gentlemanly language and behavior easily explained by his lack of society contact and time in the Navy (and even he realizes he’s defying social mores). I liked that, while he was a bit of manwhore, he immediately recognizes that if he’s to ask a woman to be faithful to him he wants to give her the same in return (hence his desperate hope that they can be physically compatible). I was ready to move to Gull Cottage as it sounded wild, remote and beautiful, the perfect place for Anne to finally get the peace and quiet she deserved. In lieu of taking a vacation there right away (look at those pictures!), I’ll content myself with reading this wonderful novella. 🙂
At a mere $1.99 for just under 150 pages, The Scandal Before Christmas is an excellent way to sample Elizabeth Essex’s writing and realize that you may have found another great historical romance author to add to your shelves.