You know how old movies and cartoons sometimes do that thing where there's an angel and a devil perched on a character's shoulders, urging the character in opposing sides of some dilemma? That was me reading this book. As I read, my sensitive-to-feminist-issues better angel kept whimpering, "This is not okay," while the just-caught-in-the-fantasy devil growled, "You're over thinking this. Just feel all the lovely, happy Feelings."
The premise has an off-the-charts high Ick Factor. Evelyn is the sheltered, pampered by blow of the Earl of Wortham and his long deceased mistress; when the earl dies, his son auctions Evelyn, and her virginity, off to the highest bidder. Only Evelyn doesn't get it: she thinks she's being introduced around as a potential bride (which, given the cruel way her brother treats her, makes her a little bit Too Stupid to Live).
Lord Rafe Easton is the highest bidder. We're meant not to hold this against him, because he's not as boorish and crude as the other gents, and because he's not actually paying money for her (just forgiving her brother's gambling debt). He is so offended by the spectacle of the auction that it almost seems that, by "rescuing" her, he is being noble. (Feminist Angel calls foul, because just like all the other men there, he intends to make Evelyn his mistress and not give her any say in the matter, so she has not been saved from sexual slavery: he's just a kinder, gentler Master than the alternatives.)
Early in their acquaintance, Rafe takes Evelyn to St. Giles to show her the extreme poverty and degradation there. (Feminist Angel cringes at the not-so-subtle "lesson" for Evelyn: isn't it better to be a whore for one man, in a clean, fancy house, than it is to whore for many in these dirty streets? But make no mistake, girl: your only choice is to get on your back.)
Then (because he has a Tortured Past, croons Fantasy Devil by way of excuse), Rafe has to counter every tender impulse he feels toward Evelyn, and every kindness she offers him, with a cruel, humiliating reminder that they are not lovers, he cannot love her, he will not give her the respectable life she craves: she is his mistress, he will use her when and how he wants until he's done with her, and so long as she toes the line and doesn't leave first, he'll make it worth her while by settling a house and fortune on her when he goes. Icky, Icky, Icky!
It is a testament to Lorraine Heath's skill as a storyteller that I didn't throw the book at the wall at the sensible urging of Feminist Angel. Because Fantasy Devil is right: despite the Ick Factor, this story is full of delicious, seductive, romantic, warm, fuzzy, gooey, melty Feelings. Rafe's character arc, overcoming his Tortured Past to learn how to love and be loved in return, is the kind of emotionally satisfying transformation we romance addicts live for. I didn't like Evelyn nearly as well--(she goes from being Too Stupid To Live at the start of the book to unrealistic Mary Sue perfection by the end, providing Rafe sublime sexual and emotional healing despite her total innocence)--but she does grow a bit of a backbone by the end, so I'll cut her some slack.
Whether you will enjoy this book may depend upon whether Feminist Angel or Fantasy Devil holds more sway with you. For me, Feminist Angel made me deeply uncomfortable with this book, but the notion of a benevolent Master holds some appeal, at least in fantasy, so I was able to enjoy the romance despite my discomfort. For others, Evelyn's lack of agency may be a hard limit.