Reviewed by Mandi
I was so excited to read this book. I adored, In For a Penny, Rose Lerner’s debut book last year. She has such a unique, if somewhat complex voice and I find her books very refreshing.
It is hard to set up the plot in this book because there are some big twists about halfway through that change the direction. But I can definitely talk about the first half.
My favorite thing about this book is that the hero, Solomon, is a chemist who makes dyes for his uncle’s “Fine Tailoring” shop. He flourishes there, while his people skills make him fumble. He also has an eye for design. And the heroine is a former prostitute turned inn owner. Now – they both come from titled families, but have both chosen to leave them. Granted, Serena didn’t choose to become a prostitute. She wanted to run off with her boyfriend, who ended up using her. With no other option, starving on the street, she turned to a brothel. But Solomon, loves what he does. He is passionate about it even though he is a tradesman.
When Solomon walks into the Ravenshaw Inn, Serena can’t believe her eyes. He is the very man that came to her years ago when she was a prostitute. But instead of having his way with her, he threw 125 pounds at her and ran away. That changed her life. She was able to become a very selective, notorious prostitute, and eventually leave to own the Ravenshaw Arms Inn. It seems that every man that comes to the inn has had her in his bed. Solomon recognizes her as well, although embarrassed, he doesn’t bring up the subject.
Solomon is seeking out Serena because his sister needs these special ruby earrings that have been in their family forever for her wedding, and they have been stolen by a highwayman. Serena knows everyone in this town, and is known for being able to track down items such as these. Solomon moves into the inn temporarily in order to assist Serena in this venture. But he soon realizes how much this inn means to her just like his tailor company means to him.
About a year and a half ago, Solomon received word that his twin brother Elijah died on the battlefield. Solomon was more than devastated. Almost contemplating suicide before the company of his uncle and the work he does at the tailor shop saved him. He still carries this grief when he becomes reunited with Serena. This is a huge part of who he is.
The first half of this book is an intimate look at Serena and her issues of self worth (in which she has none) and Solomon’s place in the world (in which he struggles about disappointing people). They are such complex characters – Solomon is this beta hero who is enamored with the sharp-tongued Serena. Beta in many senses – he can barely look her in the eye to start. She intimidates him. He starts to design her gowns – he even does a dress fitting for her. He bakes tarts in her kitchen. He is an adorable beta, and Serena recognizes this.
“Would you prefer burnt cream or almond-pear tartlets? Those are the most elegant selections in my repertoire.” His smiled turned self-deprecating and conspiratorial. “Actually, those are the only selections in my repertoire. But they’re both good.”
“Is there no end to your womanly talents?”
“Baking is just like chemistry!” he protested.
Or when Serena confesses to have slept with the Prince Regent when she was a prostitute:
“Does he use French holes?”
She stared at him. She hated to admit that Solomon knew of a perversion of which she had never heard, but there was nothing for it. “French holes?”
“On his corset,” Solomon said impatiently. “You know – most use ordinary buttonholes, but some use a sort of eyelet made of ivory or bone. You can lace them tighter that way.”
She blinked. Then she bit the back of her hand, shaking with silent, helpless laughter.
Or when Serena has to dress like a man to be sneaky and is in quite a rush– Solomon’s reaction:/
“What are you wearing?”
Serena looked down at her frock coat and Hessians in annoyance. “Solomon, I really don’t have time for this right now—“
“You bought that from Fitzhugh! How could you be such a gull? Just look at that waistcoat. Not only is the color streaky, but if he had cut it differently and added some extra quilting toward the bottom, it would have hid your shape much better. And it’s not as if his prices rae cut-rate. Promise me you’ll go to my uncle next time.
They start this dance around each other – where Serena just can’t give in to feeling attracted to a man. Because she was owned and used so much in her prostitution days – it puts her in a total panic to give up an inch of herself and give it to Solomon. He is totally intimidated by her at first, which I find so fascinating.
And then Rene marquis du Sacreval comes on the scene. A dear friend, and former part owner of the Inn, Serena bought out his share when he left for France. Now Rene is back, and wants to buy the inn from her – something Serena will never let go. The Inn has allowed her to be an independent woman, and free from men or so she thought. But when Rene presents a forged marriage certificate, and threatens to use it in two weeks time to force the inn ownership to him if Serena doesn’t accept his pay-out, Serena realizes she will never, ever be free of men’s control. Nor their deceit.
From this point, the story turns directions, and this entire scheme of spies starts to be integrated. What starts happening are all of these layers start getting inserted into the story. We start with Serena and her self esteem issues, layered with Solomon who she can’t figure out what he wants. And then we discover something shocking about Solomon’s family, and then Rene comes on the scene, and although he is blackmailing Serena, she still has this deep rooted fondness for him. And then we discover Rene’s connection to Solomon. And on and on these delicious layers of intrigue and complexity get added in. This book became something different than what it started out, and I really enjoyed that.
I do have one frustration and that comes with the romance. Serena can’t accept Solomon’s love. She just can’t get over her past issues with selling herself to men. And while I think this is really examined well, it lasts until the very bitter end of this book. I love that it is not an easy road for Serena but I also would have loved to see her transformed before the very end of the story.
Overall a lovely and intriguing story.