Theodore Swann runs the Matrimonial Advertiser, a newspaper that publishes Lonely Hearts-type letters where people can seek their perfect mate. The job is not much, but it keeps him afloat, along with his secret side job as a romance writer. One day Martin St. Vincent storms into Theo’s office. Martin has been sent to investigate a series of letters the paper has published between two young lovers, one of whom is the 17-year-old daughter of a family friend. Martin clearly doesn’t think much of Theo or his paper, but he needs Theo’s help to figure out the identity of the mystery man is who is corresponding with young Jenny.
Martin and Theo figure out that Jenny and her beau are running off to the border to elope, and Martin offers enough coin to get Theo to come along to help catch up with them. Now it is a race against time for the pair to head off the young lovers before Jenny has ruined her future with a border marriage. And along the way, Martin and Theo just might find a connection of their own.
Ok, I’ll admit this story had me wary from the start because of that blurb. Because honestly, it took me a while to even understand it. Some folks might find it clever, but for me, it’s convoluted structure was kind of a turn off. So I mostly picked this up because I love K.J. Charles, more than because the book itself appealed to me. But I am really glad I took a chance here because I found this story really engaging with some fascinating elements.
Before I go too far, I will say this isn’t really a book heavy on the romance. Martin pretty much starts out the book hating Theo, and it takes a while for him to see past Theo’s job to the man himself. There is a lot more to Theo that meets the eye, which we learn along the way, but at first things are tense between them. But there is a long carriage ride ahead of these two and they are stuck together for quite a while. It it like a Georgian era road trip story! So while they start off the story with a sexual spark that is definitely fiery, we see these men slowly come to like one another, to share some real parts of themselves with each other, and to form a bond that they want to continue in the future. But I would say this is more a story about the bond these guys grow to share, and two men finding someone who understands them and to whom they can open up, than a traditional romance.
To me the most interesting part of the book was Martin and his backstory. Martin was a former slave, having grown up as a household slave in Jenny’s home. At 18, he was freed and now maintains a friendly, if somewhat uncomfortable, relationship with the family. Charles does a great job, as always, with the historical elements here, and I found it fascinating learning about slavery in England at this time. But more than that, the dynamic between Martin and the Connor family is just fascinating. On one hand, he endured this horrible existence of growing up a slave. And on the other, he knows how much worse life could have been for him. So he is understandably resentful of the Connors, but also feels an obligation to be grateful as well, a feeling that just eats at him. It is a fascinating dynamic, and his character is just so interesting and well developed. We can see how his past has impacted the man he is now, and how this baggage he carries just wears on him. And I loved the way that he opens up to Theo, and Theo really understands him and helps Martin sort through his emotions.
Another interesting historical element here is the concept of marriage. In fact, there are some interesting parallels to Jenny’s situation and Martin’s. Not that Charles suggests for a moment (nor do I), that the plight of a pampered, wealthy, 17-year old is anything like the life of a slave. But the idea of people as property is a common thread here and I thought the concept of women as currency was well developed. Here we have Jenny, who is essentially being sold to a future husband. Her value is that she brings wealth to a marriage and in return, her family gets a title and social standing. And all of this is considered not just socially acceptable, but the only socially acceptable way for the marriage to occur. The Connors will essentially sell her to a man in exchange for what they want. But for Jenny to actually marry a man for love is considered scandalous. In fact, if anyone even learned about her elopement, she would be ruined. Her value is gone if she acts for herself. So lots of interesting ideas were explored here.
This one is a bit nontraditional, but I really found it engaging. I loved the road trip feel of it and the way we see the guys slowly coming to really bond with one another. And the historical elements are great. And even better, the story takes a really clever turn that I didn’t anticipate, making for a really fun ending. So I liked this one a lot and definitely recommend it, especially for historical fans who are looking for something a little different.