Deacon, Viscount Carlisle, is trying to track down his wayward cousin before Beau is caught by the law looking to crack down on sodomites. Deacon tracks Beau to an auction where young “innocents” are being auctioned off to brothels. Disgusted by what is going on, Deacon manages to save one young boy who has been beaten and starved and is about to be sold before the runners arrive. After he rescues Tom, Deacon sends him to his country estate where Tom can work and regain his health.
Five years later, Deacon is returning to the family home in the country after the death of his father. It turns out that his father has led the estate to virtual ruins. The house and stables are falling down and the money is gone. Deacon realizes that the time is quickly coming when he will need to marry, as he has no other way of restoring the property or taking care of the tenants but to align with a wealthy wife. Deacon has no interest in women and can hardly imagine marrying one, but he sees little choice given the bleak financial situation.
When Deacon encounters the now 18-year-old Tom helping care for the horses, he finds himself drawn to the young man. Tom seems to return the attraction, and the men act on it despite the dangers. Deacon and Tom both know there can be no future together, but the attraction between them is so fierce, neither can they stay away from one another. But stolen moments may be all they have. The penalties for sodomy are severe and the law is cracking down. When Beau finds himself in trouble again, Deacon isn’t sure he can help him, but he is determined to try to save his cousin. Seeing what Beau is going through just emphasizes the risks Tom and Deacon face, however. Between that and the financial crisis, Deacon and Tom must figure out if there is any chance for them, or if they are not meant for a future together.
I first heard about this book when Victoria Sue did a guest stop here on the blog and I was intrigued by both the premise and the historical details that seemed to be included, so I decided to give it a try. And I think both of those aspects were done really well here in The Innocent Auction. I liked the set up with the wealthy lord and the stable boy, in particular the way Beau’s story runs in parallel to Tom and Deacon’s relationship. It never overshadows them, but it does serve to illustrate the cautionary tale and the risks that Tom and Deacon face. It is a great way to show how precarious it is for two men to purse a relationship, and to let us see some of the fallout of that, without having it all happen to our heroes directly.
I also think Sue does a nice job with the historical elements here, in particular the legal side of things. We get great detail into the prison, the punishment, and the greasing of palms that makes the system work. I found these details really enhanced the story and gave us a good sense of the time period. There were times when I felt like we were getting the modern day explanation of things (talking about the “current” law or speculating that the law would be repealed in 1o years), which took me out of the story a bit, but overall I think the historical elements were done well and the writing tight and easy to read.
Where I struggled with this story was the relationship between Tom and Deacon. I just had a hard time feeling the romantic connection that was supposedly taking place. The sexual connection was clear, but I felt like they went from virtual strangers to having this deep emotional connection with no time to get there.
The first time these guys meet Tom is a child. He is drugged and barely conscious and then the next day Tom is gone and they don’t see each other for five years. When they meet again, it is barely any time before they are being sexually intimate, something surprising given both the risky political climate and the fact that Deacon is Tom’s employer. Tom has actually been living on the estate without wages in exchange for room and board, unlike a regular servant. Deacon attempts to remedy that right away, but Tom feels like he still owes Deacon for buying his release all those years before. Now Deacon is clear that he isn’t owed anything, and Tom doesn’t seem to be acting on any sense of obligation in his relations with Deacon. But we are still looking at a young man who is powerless, who had his life saved by this wealthy lord, and who wouldn’t be in much of a position to say no if he wanted to. So that power dynamic was a bit tough for me.
Added to that is that these guys move so quickly into what is supposed to be an emotional connection after barely spending any time together. I can accept quick sexual attraction, but I have a harder time seeing how these guys manage to fall for one another with so little contact. Later in the book the guys end up having several days mostly alone together, and at that point I can start to believe they could fall for one another, especially given the dire circumstances. But things happen so fast that I just had trouble believing the connection I was supposed to accept and it lessened the intensity of things for me.
My other issue is that the ending is super neat and tidy and falls pretty much out of nowhere. Now, I realize that writing happily ever afters that can be historically accurate is quite tricky, and so I am willing to suspend some disbelief in my romances. But I think there was plenty of room to lay some groundwork for this resolution that would have made it feel more natural and less like magic falling out of the sky.
Overall I enjoyed this story and found myself looking forward to seeing how things would all play out. The conflicts, both with the risks involved in their relationship and the dire financial situation, are both well developed and carry the story along nicely. I had more trouble with some of the aspects of the relationship between the men, but still found this an engaging story. I will definitely keep my eyes open for more from this author in the future.