What a wonderful book! I can sincerely say that I am waiting to re-read this in a couple of months to enjoy the characters and the story all over again.
A quick synopsis followed by what I did and didn't like:
Lady Camille Pryce has been engaged to Stephen Pollard, the Marquis of Fenton, for twenty one years, who has never made the effort to interact with her or court her. Camille feels that she can't be married to a stranger, and runs away on her wedding day. She is socially disgraced and thrown out by everyone including her own family. She finds shelter and the means to earn an income at Tantalus Club, a gambling house.
Stephen Pollard is an arrogant aristocrat who feels he was publicly disgraced when his fiancée chose to work at a gambling house rather than marry him. Because he has been publicly vicious towards Camille, he is banned from entry into Tantalus Club. He enlists the help of his socially outcast cousin, Keating Blackwood, in return for a large sum of money to bring Camille back to the altar willing to marry Stephen.
Keating Blackwood, a former rake, was cast out by society when he admitted to murdering the husband of a lover. He accepts Stephen's wager only because he needs the money to financially support the woman whose husband he killed and a child borne of his relationship with her. He returns to London after a gap of many years, expecting to find a woman who can be easily persuaded to return to the bosom of society after having suffered from being cast out. Instead, he runs across an independent and wise Camille, who has learned her lessons about superficial society and relationships. He finds himself drawn to her honesty and vulnerability. Camille also finds herself drawn to Keating as the only male who understands her reasons for not wanting to wed Stephen, and stands up for her without any expectations of physical or other gains. She learns of Keating's charter to return her to Stephen's side as a bride, and is persuaded to consider the option because she wants to help Keating earn the money he needs to support his son. The rest of the book is about resolving their feelings with the context of the financial issues and emotional pressures from Camille's family and Stephen in the background.
What I LOVED:
1. The hero first, and then the heroine - The one area where Ms. Enoch shines repeatedly in all her writings is her characterization. This book is no different. The slightly flawed characters, both the hero and heroine, are wonderful. Camille is no-nonsense yet humanly vulnerable. I loved that she could was logical and didn't take anything at face value, especially given all that she has been through. Keating has been touched by the events of his past, and needs redemption by righting a wrong he committed years ago, by supporting a woman and a son he has never seen. I loved that he could relate being hurt by society's taunts, and as a result, he stood up for Camille and deflected negative attention from her. They are both on society's fringe, evaluating if there is any good reason to return to it at all in an honest friendship.
2. ALL the secondary character - The support and advice from Camille's friends at the Tantalus Club and the understated friendship between Keating and the Duke are meaningful in the plot. The Duke is a good friend, and yet a mystery so I am looking forward to reading his love story in the next book. I didn't love Stephen or Camille's families as the antagonists, but they are very well sketched out. Stephen's motivations for wishing Camille to return to him and all his actions are completely in line with his character.
3. A slow, simmering romance - The romance develops through friendship and meaningful interaction, which is a refreshing change from so many romances these days where the story seems hinged on sexual interaction and tension alone. Not saying that there isn't appropriate sexual tension in this book, but it's not the focus of the story. Both of the primary characters willingness to consider options that were less than ideal for themselves but would benefit the other was also sweet.
What I didn't like:
1. * Spoiler Alert * - The only negative in this book for me was the lack of resolution of all the open questions for a Happily Every After to materialize. I cannot explain this without some level of spoilers, so spoiler alert. I would have liked to know if Camille and Keating were cast out of society collectively, if Stephen's ego was able to survive the ending, and if Camille's family, especially her sisters, were able to return to society and find their HEA's. It didn't seem fair for her parents to have to go through the same drama twice, especially since it is stated in the beginning of the book that Camille felt loved and cared for by her family before she ran away from the wedding.
Other than a few questions about the loose ends for the ending, this romance was touching and wonderful. It will definitely be on my re-read and recommend list.