Reviewed by Helyce
Lord George Albert Westin, aka Wes, is somewhat of a recluse. He has a horrible stammer, which gets worse whenever he has to speak to anyone, family included. The more agitated he gets, the worse the stammer, until he is rendered mute and must rely on writing on a little notepad he keeps in his pocket. As the son of the Marquess of Daventry, he is well known, but sadly, not for that. No, it is his speech impediment that people whisper about; thinking he is not quite right in the head. So, Wes relies on laudanum to calm his nerves so that he can function, somewhat, whenever he has to be out in public.
One of the things that Wes is passionate about is plants, specifically orchids. So when he learns that a woman in town, known for her own plant collection, has acquired a very rare orchid, he braves a house party that she is having. Almost immediately, his panic seizes him. There is too much noise; too many people moving about. He manages to steer himself to the edge of the room to let the wall help hold him up as he decides what to do next, determined to get a look at Mrs. Gordon’s prized orchid.
Michael Vallant, was working his way through the crowd, trying to avoid the not so subtle touching and rubbing of some of the men, when he sees a man standing near the edge of the room. Without his glasses, he’s almost blind, but he knows that build, that style of dress and he is positive that it’s his friend and boss Rodger, checking up on him. When Michael is finally able to extricate himself from an unwanted suitor, he begins to look for Rodger to see what he is up to. Slipping into a room to hide, he sees the man he thinks is Rodger and he approaches him. When Wes tries to speak and stutters painfully, Michael knows that this is not Rodger after all, and when he realizes that this is the son of the Marquess of Davenport he nearly has a panic attack himself.
Michael is a male prostitute in a time when being gay is illegal and limited to brothels such as the one Michael lives and works at on Dove Street. He’s known no other life since the age of 12 when his mother, a courtesan, sells him to a man for a weekend. When he realizes that she expects him to continue in this, he runs away meeting Rodger on the street. Rodger, only 16 at the time, takes Michael under his wing, taking care of him, keeping him safe until Michael makes the decision to be a prostitute of his own accord. Now years later, he’s quite popular at Dove Street. Unfortunately, for him, though, his chance meeting with Lord Westin sparks the memory of a horrific childhood trauma and he is no longer able to have sex with his clients. Kissing, hugging, touching, he can manage, but as soon as it goes beyond that, he freezes, curling up into a ball, unable to proceed.
When he tells Rodger of his meeting with Lord Westin, Rodger decides that perhaps another meeting with him will “fix” Michael’s problem. Michael is excited to see Lord Westin as he’s thought of him quite a bit since their rendezvous at Mrs. Gordan’s party. Wes, too, is thrilled to receive the invite to visit Michael at Dove Street and looks forward to seeing him again. Their reunion, however, is a disaster. As excited as they both are to be with each other, as soon as Wes makes his move, Michael jumps away, in a panic. Wes is confused, disappointed and embarrassed. He can barely speak as he tries to comfort Michael who cannot begin to explain what is wrong. In the end, though, Wes decides that Michael’s company is more important to him than being able to have sex and he suggests that he “buy” Michael’s time for one month. Not for sex, but for companionship.
So begins the friendship between these two men. They meet under the most coincidental of circumstances, and Wes has no idea how intricately woven their pasts actually are. As they begin their fragile relationship, it is clear their feelings for each other go way beyond that of friendship and watching them slowly fall in love is beautifully done herein. As they spend more and more time together, however, Michael’s issues do not improve. In fact, they get worse as he begins to have terrible nightmares. Albert (Wes) too, begins to rely more and more on his laudanum in order to spend more time in public with Michael. While he’s taken the drug most of his life, the additional quantity becomes harmful as he falls into a major addiction.
This is my first book by Heidi Cullinan and while I’ve not read her, I’m familiar with her backlist. I’m going out on a limb to say that I’m guessing this is nothing like her other work, in that there is almost no sex in this book. Ms. Cullinan has crafted such a beautiful love story here and I was moved to tears more than once. Michael’s early abuse as a child by a man that his mother brought into their home scarred him more than he realized. Though he had dealt with it enough to “choose” the life he led and become quite successful at it, he’s devastated when he can no longer have sex and as it’s his only means of making money he wonders what will become of him. Wes, too, had suffered a childhood trauma that marked him so badly, he began to stutter and was never able to stop no matter how many doctors he had visited. So you have two men, eager to find their way to love, but both so damaged by a trauma neither had any control over.
The secondary characters move around in the background providing much substance and strengthen the story well. When Wes succumbs to his drugs and nearly overdoses he seeks the help of a woman, Penny, that he met at the same party he met Michael. Penny is nothing like the gentle woman of this time. She’s an American for starters, and quite independent to boot. Even then, Wes is drawn to her and she provides for him a safe harbor when he needs it most. The final conflict involves a difficult subject matter, but the author handles it so well and I have to admit I saw this coming so wasn’t too surprised.
While quite heartbreaking at times, this love story is told in such a beautifully touching way that pulled me in from the beginning. I adored Wes and Michael!