Rating: 4.5 stars
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As a young man, George Hardwick, Earl of Thistledown, knew that Society would never accept the idea that he loved another man. If he and his lover, Myles Harris, were ever discovered, at best he could hope that he would be stripped of his land and title and exiled—at worst, executed for his crimes. Even if they did manage to keep the secret, there would be pressure to marry, produce heirs, and the constant trials of having to make sure there was a perfectly legitimate reason for their close “friendship.” But George and Myles had a plan: their younger siblings Claire and Basil were in love and their mothers favored the union. Their siblings could marry, produce heirs to inherit land and titles, and as brothers-in-law no one would question their closeness. To young, wide-eyed, and hopelessly dreaming George it seemed foolproof. And then Myles left him without a word to join the Navy and Claire’s mother died and her father married her off to another man with a title, something Basil didn’t have.
Now, almost a decade later, George is still heartbroken over Myles’ betrayal but that doesn’t keep him from helping his sister Claire away when she flees her abusive husband and seeks refuge in the home of her childhood friends. George takes Claire in without hesitation even though he knows it means reuniting with Myles, just home from his tour of duty with the Navy. Since beating your wife is completely legal, Claire and those trying to help her have no legal recourse and the four of them, Claire, Basil, George, and Myles fall into a frantic downward spiral of deception and misdirection to keep her safe. It’s all worth it for Claire’s safety, but it forces George and Myles into more contact than either man would like to have with the other after the implosion of their relationship years earlier. If they want to save Claire and free her from her vicious husband, then they must put their past hurts behind them and learn to work together as they once did. But when it comes out that Myles’ betrayal was actually an act of kindness to save George from his father’s cruelty, George must ask himself if he can let go of nearly a decade of hurt and let Myles into his life again.
In the interest of full disclosure I have to say that I usually don’t read many m/m books set in the Regency period because most of them handle the difficult situation of homosexuality being completely unaccepted by either glossing over it or creating outlandish scenarios to get around it. This book does neither and it was a joy to read. It’s not often that the thing I love most about a book is its handling of the political or social climate, but this is one of those times. The fact that a relationship between two men wouldn’t have been tolerated in that time period is definitely a real issue in this book and not just swept under the rug, but it’s also not an insurmountable obstacle to their happiness where the only solution is a bittersweet arrangement with fake marriages or secret rendezvous or something. It’s very skillfully done.
Another thing I loved about this book is that it was the perfect length. It’s not often that we get such well-rounded characters and fully realized story arcs in a novella, but we get that here. The story begins right where the action does and it doesn’t end without addressing all the plot threads and tying them off neatly in a satisfying way. There were some really smart choices made here in regards to plotting that made this book hard to put down. The pacing was fantastic and all in all it was a quick but impactful read.
I mentioned the well-rounded characters above, and really I can’t stress enough how much I enjoyed all the characters in this book, not just the main characters. I did love the main characters though. George was so strong and smart and showed such obvious care for everyone around him. It was obvious that he loved taking care of people and that he was very good at it. He didn’t hesitate to put himself between a battered wife and her husband who was technically in the right, at least in the eyes of the law, no matter the consequence to him personally. I loved watching a character stand so tall and firm against the evils of the outside world but who was laid so low by the perceived betrayal of his lover. He was so wounded yet so determined not to let it affect him and I just loved him to pieces.
Myles was an amazing character too. It’s clear that he really grew up during his time in the Navy and it was fascinating to watch him relearn the way he fit into the lives of the people he left behind—especially George. The part of the story when they were still cautiously feeling their way around one another was brilliantly crafted. I also loved the way that the heartbreak over the dissolved relationship was the same for both Myles and George in a lot of ways, but so very different also, with George retreating in on himself but Myles having to deal with it on a ship without having anyone he knew around while also fighting for his life. It was a fascinating layer to his character and a detail that I think made him feel real and relatable while also driving much of his actions in the beginning portion of the book.
I also adored that Myles was the first of them to accept the idea that things between them weren’t broken beyond repair and that as soon as he caught that glimmer of hope he was determined to fix things. I love take charge men who don’t whine about their problems, but act on them instead. Though that’s not to say George was a whiner, because he wasn’t, he just seemed to take longer to come to terms with the idea that it was possible to fix their relationship. Both approaches fit their respective characters and I think both were necessary to make the story work, but I just really loved seeing Myles fight so hard for the man he cared so deeply for.
And when they finally do get their shit together? My god, their romance is beautiful. It’s weird in this way that at times it was portrayed as this intensely burning thing between them and at others it was this quiet, steady presence that took a backseat to the other insanity going on in their lives. I loved that. It made the romance feel real and sustainable two things that we don’t often get from romance novels. Not that I don’t love a good highly fictionalized, based entirely on fantasy, whirlwind romance, but it’s so nice to see a more everyday type romance, that steady, gently pulsing thing that’s more about comfort and companionship than wild passion depicted as something beautiful and special. These men work very well together and complement each other perfectly. It’s been a long time since I’ve read a couple I enjoyed so much individually and together.
I also really appreciated the way the first separation was handled. The events that preceded it were enough to warrant almost a decade of bitterness and hurt feelings, but they also weren’t so insurmountable and terrible that it made a reconciliation seem impossible. So many times in the lovers reunited trope the things that drive them apart completely gut the characters and hollow me out as a reader and we’re all so empty that by the time they make up it almost seems to not even be worth it, that we all should have cut our losses and walked away much earlier. But here, forgiveness felt both easy and natural and not at all insincere. I truly felt like these men had put the awful scheming of Myles’ father behind them and no bitterness or lingering resentment was going to crop up later on down the road.
The side characters worked extremely well here too. There were a lot of them that made appearances here and not a one of them felt like they were just plot devices or two dimensional. Claire and Basil, whose star-crossed romance fuels most of the plot here, are both layered and complex considering that they are side characters and their sweet, subtle, and gentle romance felt like a bonus on top of George and Myles’ story. I was also impressed with the villains in this story, Claire and Myles’ late father, Old Harris, and Claire’s husband, Lord Phillips. They were done with a light touch so that they didn’t overwhelm the story, but they were also both done realistically so that it was clear that they were bad guys with little to no redeeming qualities yet they never got that two dimensional, over-the-top caricature feel some villains can take on. Neither were simply mindless ruffians, both were cold, calculated and far more ruthless than they seemed at first glance.
The other little hidden nugget that I really enjoyed about the side characters were the other gay men that occasionally popped up throughout the narrative. There are several servants and the “cousins” (I won’t say more than that and give it away, but they’re great) that are involved with other men and I really enjoyed that for two reasons. The first is that George’s position as earl allows him to quietly gather these men and protect them and their lifestyle as best he can and it’s just another sweet little detail that just makes your heart melt for George and what a great guy he is. The second is that it’s nice to see success stories in this universe, to see other gay men successfully live and love even in a time when it was so socially unacceptable as to actually be a crime punishable by death. This was so well done, so effortlessly woven into the story that when one of these characters is mentioned—the butler whose partner was the former footman who died of a heart attack—it’s only a few short sentences dedicated to telling about how he looked lost for weeks and that was how George knew the truth of their relationship, but I was so heartbroken for this man who wasn’t even free to mourn the loss of the man he’d spent his life with that I actually teared up and had to stop reading for a few minutes.
Just about the only complaint that I have about this book is that the beginning portion was a little hard to get into because so much information was just dumped on the reader there. There were so many complicated relationships between all of the characters because they grew up together and you needed that background to understand why things were happening the way they were and it was all just sort of plopped out there for you. It made it hard to slog through that first few chapters but after that I was swept up in this story and enjoyed every minute of my captivity.
I definitely recommend you check this one out, especially if you love historical romances or stories where the heroes persevere despite long odds. This was my first experience with Cheryl Dragon’s work but after such a delightful story I can definitely say it won’t be my last.