Author: Ashley March
Release Date: 6 September 2011
Number of pages: 310 pages
Source: review copy provided by author
Purchasing Info: Goodreads, Author's Website, Amazon, Kindle store, Book Depository
Grade: 4 stars
Goodreads appetizer: Sebastian Madinger, the Earl of Wriothesly, thought he'd married the perfect woman-until a fatal accident revealed her betrayal with his best friend. After their deaths, Sebastian is determined to avoid a scandal for the sake of his son. But his best friend's widow is just as determined to cast her mourning veil aside by hosting a party that will surely destroy both their reputations and expose all of his carefully kept secrets...
Leah George has carried the painful knowledge of her husband's affair for almost a year. All she wants now is to enjoy her independence and make a new life for herself-even if that means being ostracized by the Society whose rules she was raised to obey. Now that the rumors are flying, there's only one thing left for Sebastian to do: silence the scandal by enticing the improper widow into becoming a proper wife. But when it comes to matters of the heart, neither Sebastian nor Leah is prepared for the passion they discover in each other's arms...
Leah has been married to Sebastian's best friend Ian for years, but has been living the last couple years of her marriage as a torture, ever since she discovered her husband was having an affair - when she believed that their marriage was a happy one - and with none other than Sebastian's wife! All her young idealism and rose-hued love were shattered along with her heart when she discovered the betrayal of her husband. So when word arrives that her husband and his mistress (=Sebastian's wife) died in a carriage accident, she can't help but feel relieved. Relieved that she doesn't have to continue to live a painful lie, a charade in front of society and pretend everything is well between her and her husband. She relishes her newly found freedom and wants to experience her independence to the fullest.
This is where Sebastian enters the picture. Sebastian was and still is very much in love with his wife. Discovering her betrayal comes as an ice cold shower, he never saw it coming and has a hard time accepting it. I loved how Ashley March did not make him stop loving her wife upon the discovery of her adulterous behaviour but made it realistic, love can't cease instantly, you can't turn it off with a switch. His struggles with his lingering feelings of love and anger and grief at her betrayal were poignant. Sebastian fears that people will speculate about the unusual circumstances of the accident (=why their respective spouses were together) and he wants to present a united front with Leah so as to quell all speculation and not tarnish the memory and reputation of their deceased spouses. And he very much fears that Leah enjoying her freedom will make it obvious to everyone that she is not a grieving widow and people will jump to the conclusion which is the truth.
For this reason he tries to spend as much time with Leah as he can so he can keep an eye on her and stop any foolishness she might do. What he doesn't take into account is that Leah slowly but steadily starts to get under his skin. First it is her gaiety at enjoying her freedom then later a physical attraction develops between them which make him think more and more about her.
"I didn't kiss you because I wanted revenge on Ian or Angela. I kissed you because I wanted to. Because I wanted you."
"Do you like the dress?"
"Do I like it? No. Do I want to tear it off of you: Yes."
What was interesting is the way Ashley March explored how Sebastian and Leah dealt with their grief differently: Sebastian was devastated and enraged, while Leah wasn't grieving because of her husband's death, she did her part of grieving a few years ago when she lost her husband and her innocence upon discovering his deceit.
Leah's quest and need for independence was very sobering. We tend to forget that a couple centuries ago women were really considered property of their husband and father and were only "allowed" to do things if their husband saw fit to it. Ashley March did a wonderful job reminding the reader of the way things were back then and bringing such realism to it by making us experience these abstract notions through Leah's own personal predicament that the reader couldn't not get a taste of what it would have felt like to be a woman in that age. (And give thanks for enlightened men and living in a more feminist and equal opportunity world today.)
I have to applaud Ashley March for not writing a fairy tale too rose-y story of this setting. For not making Sebastian get over his beloved dead wife right after he discovered her deceit. His grief and suffering ensured the story remained realistic and believable.
I have to confess that I much preferred the second part of the story (the marriage of convenience part) to the first one when Leah and Sebastian were at Leah's garden party, and would have liked to get there earlier but I understand Ashley March had to build the foundation for that.
With such a setting I feared that it would be difficult if not impossible to believe that Sebastian a man who was much in love with his deceased wife would forget about her and fall in love anew, especially so soon. But Ashley March did it! She made me believe in it (though if a bit more time had elapsed after their spouses' death it would have been even easier for me to believe it).
Sebastian was a wonderful hero: intense and determined, his dialogues and declarations always gave me goosebumps:
"But I want to marry you, Leah George, not someone else. You see I've become rather accustomed to your smile. Even if it angers me when I'm so determined to be miserable. And I've grown to anticipate your devilish antics - it seems I like watching you enjoy your freedom as much as you like exploring it. "The love story between Leah and Sebastian was such a satisfaction because besides their love, Sebastian truly respected Leah and wanted to give her her freedom, so she could freely dispose of it. Which shows better than anything his deep understanding of her character and the depth of his affection for her.