Bless Us With Content features beautiful horses and handsome men, a stolen ruby, an estate in ruinous debt, and love that stretches across oceans. It has betrayal, broken engagements, more orphans than you can shake a stick at, marriages of convenience, and a gentleman’s agreement. In order to repay his uncle’s debts and save Fayerweather Estate, “Awful” Ashton Layton has no choice but to welcome the handsome George Stephenson into his bed. Unfortunately, life gets more complicated with a returning lover, a case or three of mistaken identity, and a child who looks very much like Ashton. All in all, a very expected regency romance.
Only … it’s not exactly that expected. All of the ingredients are here — the tormented heir; the mysterious, tall, dark, and handsome stranger; a cast of unpleasant and unkind bullies; as well as a smattering of good, hard-working people — but somehow this becomes more of a story about self-acceptance and growth than a romance. Ashton is a broken man who has spent so much of his life unwanted, overlooked, beaten, ignored, mocked, and hurt that he accepts the treatment he’s given as just and right. When the servants don’t tend to his rooms, it’s fine. When they ignore his orders, it’s fine. When he’s blamed for everything that goes wrong, yelled at and browbeaten, it’s okay.
His first love affair is with John Scarlett, one of the foundling children who is, like himself, taken in by Aunt Cecily and Uncle Eustace. Only, unlike Ashton, all three Scarlett brothers are loved and wanted. They’re spoiled, given anything and everything they want to make them happy, including Cecily’s love. When John Scarlett decides to lower himself enough to sleep with Ashton, Ash accepts it willingly and happily. He’s long carried a torch for John, even if the other young man looks at him like he’s dogshit on the underside of his boot. He doesn’t mind that John won’t kiss him, won’t stay the night, won’t even accept a small birthday gift from him. It’s fine. It’s … it’s all fine.
It isn’t until George Stephenson shows Ashton some kindness — a kiss, a gentle touch, the fact that he looks offended on Ashton’s behalf when Bella calls him “Awful” at the dinner table and no one bats an eye — that Ash begins to think about his lot in life. He enjoys Geo’s company. For all that this is supposed to be a business arrangement (and an enjoyable one), Ash finds looking forward to Geo’s conversation and friendship even more than his nightly visits. In standing beside Geo, Ash finds himself standing a bit taller, behaving more like the man he is and not the boy everyone remembers him being, the boy forever compared to the Scarlett brothers.
I enjoyed Ash’s story far more than the supposed romance. Geo enters as a mystery and remains so throughout the book. He never really explains why he decided to make Ash whore himself out, and when he finally opens up about why he bought up Eustace’s debt, he frames it as something Ash is pushing him to say. Geo is drunk, and accuses Ash, again and again, of demanding the story, of wanting to know the truth about Geo’s childhood and his mother, no matter how Ash protests. That’s not to say Geo is a bad person, because he’s not. But his reasons for entering into his relationship with Ash are suspect and never addressed, and even his gift to Ash at the end is something Geo chose to give, not something Ash was able to choose for himself. The idea is good, the urge to gift a gift to the person he loves is good, but Geo’s thought processes seem confused and selfish, for all that they’re done out of love.
As a regency read, this is a good book. As a romance, it’s … fine. The writing is good, the world building, the pacing, the many plots and side plots are all woven together so well. I just wish more attention had been given to Geo as a character ,rather than feeling like a plot device.