This was a lovely romance and I'm so glad that I decided to take a chance and buy it. It's character-driven, so there were not any subplots to detract from the main relationship and the developing romance. The hero and heroine were fantastic - well-written, compelling, and very three-dimensional. I thought the writing was excellent, the dialogue and character portrayal lovely, and there was some delicious chemistry. Brooke is a new author for me to keep my eye out for and I'm looking forward to reading the books she writes in the future.
Lady Jane Roxdale, after six years of marriage and at the young age of 23, has just become a widow. Her marriage was far from wonderful, so she cannot really find it in herself to grieve too much at her husband's passing. She is happy to have her freedom, however short-lived it may be, and sorry that she now has to move out of her home and that most of her inheritance will be going to her husband's heir. Imagine her surprise when Frederick's will is read and she finds out that while all entailed properties go to his heir, as they must, his entire fortune and assets have been left to Jane. Of far more concern to her is that the six-year-old boy, Luke, whom Jane has raised and come to think of as her own son, has been made the heir's ward.
Constantine Black, now Lord Roxdale, had been looking forward to this opportunity to start over. Overshadowed by a horrible scandal from his youth, Constantine has had to deal with snubs and being an outcast for far too long. With his new title and responsibilities, he hopes to be able to show people that he is a capable and responsible man with honor and integrity. How is he to possibly run and support an estate without funds though? Without the accompanying fortune, he is at a complete loss as to how to find the money necessary to do right by the estates and their tenants.
The obvious solution to both of their problems is for Jane and Constantine to marry. He will acquire the necessary funds and she will be able to keep and care for Luke. To Jane's mind, marrying Constantine is a small price to pay in order to stay with Luke, and while she has no desire to marry again and has an absolute fear and horror of the marriage bed, she is willing to do what is necessary. While Jane is eager to have the situation resolved in this way, Constantine is not immediately convinced and tries desperately to figure out some other way to find the money he needs.
Jane makes an (often laughable) attempt at courtship in order to convince Constantine to accept her offer of marriage and do what will benefit them both. In the end, acknowledging the necessity and having seen how attached Jane is to Luke, he concedes the point, but is determined to make Jane want him, as a husband and lover, and not just what will come from their alliance. As Jane is increasingly drawn in by him, she has to remind herself that this is a marriage of convenience, that this gorgeous man can have any woman he wants and can't possibly desire her, and that she should not expect anything from him ... but how wonderful if she was wrong, and he did begin to care for her. Thus begins an odd and somewhat two-sided courtship by a man and woman who could not be more dissimilar, yet have, through different experiences, both been emotionally scarred and find it very difficult to trust others.
Jane and Constantine were such a fabulous match! Let me start off by saying that this is the second romance book I've read this week where I was not into the leading characters at the beginning - the first one being Meredith Duran's new book A Lady's Lesson in Scandal. In both cases, for the first section of the books I did not really like the heroine and I didn't have a feel for or any fondness towards the hero. Oddly enough, I think this actually made the entire experience better for me. In a romance, the hero and the heroine get to know one another (if they don't already) and fall in love; to be able to go through that same experience with them makes reading their romance that much more enjoyable and feel that much more authentic, because you're falling in love right alongside them.
Jane ended up being a terrific heroine and strong leading lady. She is a quiet woman who doesn't like to be the center of attention, however in many ways she's not like a lot of other wallflower heroines we see. She is not comfortable with people she doesn't know, can seem odd and abrupt, is not at all warm and fuzzy (except with Luke), and often keeps people at a distance with what seems like a very prickly personality. As one gets to know her though, you realize there is so much more to her and I ended up truly loving and admiring her. She is very self-contained and very controlled, but one gets the sense that is her way of surviving and making it through things. Also makes seeing Constantine loosen her up that much more fun ;-). Many times over she shows her strength of character, and the final section of the book really lets her shine as she convinces herself to stand up and fight for what (or rather who) she wants - Constantine.
Constantine was an absolutely wonderful and lovely hero! Again, I was not very drawn to him at the beginning. First, within the beginning 15 pages he has seen and lusts after Jane (who is supposed to be a somewhat plain jane type of heroine). This is a bad start for me, because I cannot stand lust-based or lust-driven romances. He also seemed to be a very familiar hero: the scandal-ridden rake who goes out of his way to live up to his (undeserved) bad reputation. Just like Jane though, there is much more to him and he ends up being a very gentle, sweet, and caring man. ::sigh:: Completely delicious and swoon-worthy! He has such a strong sense of responsibility and familial duty; having everyone he knows and everyone in society doubt his honor and integrity for years and years has been heart-breaking for him, even as he tries to pretend he doesn't care what others think of him and tells himself he doesn't seek anyone else's approval.
What Jane struggles through in this book are her own issues of trust and feelings of inadequacy as a wife. The marriage bed experience for her was nothing short of traumatic and she is convinced that there is something wrong with her in that sense and that she is unable to be a proper wife. The way that Constantine treats her and how gentle and tender he is as he tries to help her through her fear will make your heart melt. Bravo to Brooke, because she really does do a fantastic job with this aspect of the story and how it impacts both characters and their growing relationship.
Constantine, in a way, has a similar struggle in that he also has problems of trust. Other than his younger brother, no one has stood by him since the scandal so many years ago when he was 20 (am unsure of his age now). He felt utterly and completely betrayed that his friends and family would think him capable of what he was accused of and so didn't even try to deny it. He wants Jane's approval and respect, and he also wants to lighten and loosen her up a little. Jane, for her part, is pretty standoffish with him at the beginning, but does slowly do a turnaround. I thought that she takes long enough for it to be believable, but doesn't hold out for so long that the reader gets annoyed and says enough already.
WHAT I DIDN'T LIKE:
* Don't know Constantine's age and I wish Jane had been a little older; the way she's written she seems older than 23.
* The Ministry of Marriage concept is stupid, I still don't completely understand it, and I found the whole thing annoying. The machinations are a little disgusting and that these family leaders are treating their families' younger generations like marionettes is unpleasant.
* I think more could have been done with Jane's past. Most of her issues arise from her marriage to Frederick, but with what she went through in her early years it must have had an impact on her as a character and should have been more fully explored.
* The relationship between the main characters was so well-done that IMO it really detracted that the initial interest was based on lust/attraction. Brooke did this for both of them: she makes Constantine immediately lust after Jane and she immediately finds him attractive and is drawn to him. Thankfully, this is only in the very beginning, after which it begins to lessen under the focus of their relationship in other aspects and is then slowly brought back, as their connection starts to form for other reasons.
* The Epilogue kind of sets up or prepares us for book 2 (Mad About the Earl), so it's told from the next heroine's POV and is more focused on her own thoughts and feelings, with Jane and Constantine's HEA as a backdrop. Since it's their epilogue, I would prefer it was told from their POV. (Note: I ended up loving Jane so much that by the end of the book I was convinced I wouldn't read the other two heroine's romances, because compared to her they seemed boring and flat. There's a sneak preview of Rosamund's story at the end of this one though and Brooke already has me intrigued (is a beauty and the beast romance), so there goes that vow!)
Absolutely fantastic and I definitely recommend it. I am keeping my copy, because I know I will reread in the future. The story was simple, but the characters were complex and their relationship builds up beautifully. Read it and enjoy!!