Every girl dreams of a hero . . .
No one loves books more than Miss Mary Channing. Perhaps that’s why she’s reached the ripe old age of six-and-twenty without ever being kissed. Her future may be as bland as milk toast, but Mary is content to simply dream about the heroes and adventures she reads about in her books. That way she won’t end up with a villain instead.
But sometimes only a scoundrel will do.
When she unexpectedly finds herself in the arms of Geoffrey Westmore, London’s most notorious scoundrel, it feels a bit like a plot from one of her favorite novels. Suddenly, Mary understands why even the smartest heroines can fall prey to a handsome face. And Westmore is more handsome than most. But far worse than the damage to her reputation, the moment’s indiscretion uncovers an assassination plot that reaches to the highest levels of society and threatens the course of the entire country.
When a tight-laced miss and a scoundrel of epic proportions put their minds together, nothing can stand in their way. But unless they put their hearts together as well, a happy ending is anything but assured.
London, May 29, 1858
The smell should have been worse.
She’d expected something foul, air made surly by the summer heat. Just last week she’d read about the Thames, that great, roiling river that carried with it the filth of the entire city and choked its inhabitants to tears. Her rampant imagination, spurred on by countless books and newspaper articles, had conjured a city of fetid smells, each more terrible than the last. But as Miss Mary Channing opened her bedroom window and breathed in her first London morning, her nose filled with nothing more offensive than the fragrance of . . .
Disconcerted, she peeked out over the sill. Dawn was just breaking over the back of Grosvenor Square. The gaslights were still burning and the windows of the other houses were dark. By eight o’clock, she imagined industrious housemaids would be down on their knees, whiting their masters’ stoops. The central garden would fill with nurses and their charges, heading west toward Hyde Park.
But for now the city—and its smells—belonged solely to her.
She breathed in again. Was she dreaming? Imagining things, as she was often wont to do? She was well over two hundred miles from home, but it smelled very much like her family’s ornamental garden in Yorkshire. She didn’t remember seeing a garden last night, but then, she had arrived quite late, the gaslight shadows obscuring all but the front steps. She’d been too weary to think, so sickened by the ceaseless motion of the train that she’d not even been able to read a book, much less ponder the underpinnings of the air she breathed.
She supposed she might have missed a garden. Good heavens, she probably would have missed a funeral parade, complete with an eight-horse coach and a brass band.
After the long, tiresome journey, she’d only wanted to find a bed.
And yet now . . . at five o’clock in the morning . . . she couldn’t sleep.
Not on a mattress that felt so strange, and not in a bedroom that wasn’t her own.
Pulling her head back inside, she eyed the four-poster bed, with its rumpled covers and profusion of pretty pillows. It was a perfectly nice bed. Her sister, Eleanor, had clearly put some thought into the choice of fabrics and furniture. Most women would love such a room. And most women would love such an opportunity—two whole months in London, with shops and shows and distractions of every flavor at their fingertips.
But Mary wasn’t most women. She preferred her distractions in the form of a good book, not shopping on Regent Street. And these two looming months felt like prison, not paradise.
The scent of roses lingered in the air, and as she breathed in, her mind settled on a new hope. If there was a flower garden she might escape to—a place where she might read her books and write in her journal—perhaps it would not be so terrible?
Picking up the novel she had not been able to read on the train, Mary slipped out of the strange bedroom, her bare feet silent on the stairs. She had always been an early riser, waking before even the most industrious servants back home in Yorkshire. At home, the cook knew to leave her out a bit of breakfast—bread and cheese wrapped in a napkin—but no one here would know to do that for her yet.
Ever since she’d been a young girl, morning had been her own time, quiet hours spent curled up on a garden bench with a book in her lap, nibbling on her pocket repast, the day lightening around her. The notion that she might still keep to such a routine in a place like London gave her hope for the coming two months.
She drifted down the hallway until she found a doorway that looked promising, solid oak, with a key still in the lock. With a deep breath, she turned the key and pulled it open. She braced herself for knife-wielding brigands. Herds of ragged street urchins, hands rifling through her pockets. The sort of London dangers she’d always read about.
Instead, the scent of flowers washed over her like a lovely, welcome tide.
Oh, thank goodness.
She hadn’t been imagining things after all.
Something hopeful nudged her over the threshold of the door, then bade her to take one step, then another. In the thin light of dawn, she saw flowers in every color and fashion: bloodred rose blooms, a cascade of yellow flowers dripping down the wrought iron fence. Her fingers loosened over the cover of her book. Oh, but it would be lovely to read here. She could even hear the light patter of a fountain, beckoning her deeper.
But then she heard something else above those pleasant, tinkling notes.
An almost inhuman groan of pleasure.
With a startled gasp, she spun around. Her eyes swam through the early morning light to settle on a gentleman on the street, some ten feet or so away on the other side of the wrought iron fence. But the fact of their separation did little to relieve her anxiety, because the street light illuminated him in unfortunate, horrific clarity.
He was urinating.
Through the fence.
Onto one of her sister’s rosebushes.
The book fell from Mary’s hand. In all her imaginings of what dreadful things she might encounter on the streets of London, she’d never envisioned anything like this. She ought to bolt. She ought to scream. She ought to . . . well . . . she ought to at least look away.
But as if he was made of words on a page, her eyes insisted on staying for a proper read. His eyes were closed, his mouth open in a grimace of relief. Objectively, he was a handsome mess, lean and long-limbed, a shock of disheveled blond hair peeking out from his top hat. But handsome was always matter of opinion, and this one had “villain” stamped on his skin.
As if he could hear her flailing thoughts, one eye cracked open, then the other. “Oh, ho, would you look at that, Grant? I’ve an audience, it seems.”
Somewhere down the street, another voice rang out. “Piss off!” A snigger followed. “Oh, wait, you already are.”
“Cork it, you sodding fool!” the blond villain shouted back. “Can’t you see we’re in the presence of a lady?” He grinned. “Apologies for such language, luv. Though . . . given the way you are staring, perhaps you don’t mind?” He rocked back on his heels, striking a jaunty pose even as the urine rained down. “If you come a little closer, I’d be happy to give you a better peek.”
Mary’s heart scrambled against her ribs. She might be a naive thing, fresh from the country, and she might now be regretting her presumption that it was permissible to read a book in a London garden in her bare feet, but she wasn’t so unworldly that she didn’t know this one pertinent fact: she was not—under any circumstances—coming a little closer.
Or getting a better peek.
Mortified, she wrapped her arms about her middle. “I . . .that is . . . couldn’t you manage to hold it?” she somehow choked out. There. She’d managed a phrase, and it was a properly scathing one, too. As good as any of her books’ heroines might have done.
A grin spread across his face. Much like the puddle at the base of the rosebush. “Well, luv, the thing is, I’m thinking I’d rather let you hold it.” The stream trickled to a stop, though he added a few more drips for good measure. He shook himself off and began to button his trousers. “But alas, it seems you’ve waited too long for the pleasure.” He tipped a finger to the brim of his top hat in a sort of salute. “My friend awaits. Perhaps another time?”
Mary gasped. Or rather, she squeaked.
She could manage little else.
He chuckled. “It seems I’ve got a shy little mouse on my hands. Well, squeak squeak, run along then.” He set off down the street, swaying a bit. “But I’ll leave you with a word of advice, Miss Mouse,” he tossed back over one shoulder. “You’re a right tempting sight, standing there in your unutterables. But you might want to wear shoes the next time you ogle a gentleman’s prick. Never know when you’ll need to run.”
Publisher and Release Date: Avon, September 27, 2016
Time and Setting: England, 1858
Genre: Historical Romance
Heat Level: 2
Reviewer Rating: 3.5 stars
Review by Maria Almaguer
A few years ago, I read and loved Jennifer McQuiston’s debut, What Happens in Scotland. It was an original and well-written page turner and, since then, she has consistently contributed to the historical romance genre with interconnected novels (and a charming novella) set in early Victorian England.
The Perks of Loving a Scoundrel is the third in her newest series, the Seduction Diaries, featuring the younger brother of Clare (heroine of the first book). Geoffrey Westmore once held much promise and a looked towards a bright future. But his time in the Crimea changed all that as war often does.
Mary Channing is a bookish spinster quietly and contentedly living in Yorkshire when she is summoned to London by her twin sister, Eleanor, to be with her for Eleanor’s final months of pregnancy. Mary is ambivalent because she would much rather stay at home with her books and quiet life but feels she cannot refuse because it is her beloved sister. But, as Mary notes in the very first entry in her diary, she’s also afraid to see Eleanor’s fulfilling life, with her anticipated child and her loving husband, a life she secretly longs for but assumes will never ever be hers.
The novel is interspersed with diary entries that Mary faithfully writes every chance she gets. On her very first morning in London, however, when she has just discovered a lovely patch of garden where she might spend her quiet morning in blissful solitude, she is rudely interrupted by a drunken stranger urinating on her sister’s flowers! This reader admits to feeling every bit as shocked as Mary but I do appreciate the authenticity and realism that Ms. McQuiston introduces in her colorful and very human stories. The odors of London (with its polluted Thames) opens the story and Mary’s first day in the city along with the urinating stranger who turns out to be our hero, Mr. Geoffrey Westmore.
It seems to me to be a bit of a new trend in historical romance – at least the ones I’m reading lately – that historical romance now add a dash of mystery to the love story. Juliana Gray did it in her most recent novella (The Duke of Olympia Meets His Match) and Ms. McQuiston does it here with the hero and heroine accidentally overhearing a plot to assassinate the Queen Victoria when they are caught in a library together and sharing several stolen and passionate kisses.
Geoffrey was once a happy-go-lucky young man, fond of pranks and with an ambition to study architecture. But his dreams crashed down during the war in the Crimea and he has tried to forget it by becoming an irresponsible wastrel, much to the dismay of his loving and loyal valet, Wilson. Wilson is a character who is extremely familiar and informal toward Geoffrey – he still calls him “Master Geoffrey” for example – and also admonishes his disgusting habits and lifestyle. This is not something most servants would ever do so either Ms. McQuiston took some liberties here or there possibly may have been some servants who were almost like family.
Geoffrey spends his days sleeping off his long nights of drinking and whoring with his best friend, Grant, with whom he also experienced the horrors of war. Both are troubled young men and this is the part of the story that didn’t quite work for me. Geoffrey’s turnabout in the face of being caught with Mary seems much too fast. I can kind of see how his loving and close family may have some influence on him – he doesn’t want them to be ashamed of him – but it’s hard to believe that an uptight and proper spinster would be the impetus for his sudden volte face.
Mary has her own melancholy past with great loss and grief that has made her afraid to experience life; she’d much rather read about the world and adventures in books. Her time in London is her one chance to break out of her shell but, until she overhears the scheme with Geoffrey, she isn’t motivated enough to make her life better. When she meets Geoffrey, she is attracted to him but I don’t quite feel the sparks and sexual tension between them. It feels more like Mary is desperate for a change and it’s an opportunity for Geoffrey to reform.
In stereotypical male fashion, however, Geoffrey doesn’t want Mary’s help in uncovering the traitors conspiring to murder the queen even though she has some pretty darn good ideas. But he discovers he likes her determination and willfulness – even if it drives him nuts – and she eventually becomes attractive to him. For her part, Mary is simultaneously attracted to and shocked by Geoffrey’s colorful past, something a good girl has no experience with. I guess you could say opposites attract.
Eventually, Geoffrey begins to question his dissolute life while Mary contemplates her boring one as they work together to uncover truth about the assassination plot. The mystery part of the story is engaging and lively and the ultimate villain is a surprise. I like the unexpected and unique plot twists that Ms. McQuiston creates.
But what I like best about this book – and the entire series – is the strong sense of family that is depicted realistically and lovingly. I did not read the second book in the series but I don’t think you need to read them in order to appreciate and follow the thread of the novels.
I enjoy Ms. McQuiston’s writing style; it flows nicely, her plots are fresh and imaginative, and her characters rich and likable. I just didn’t quite believe what seemed like Geoffrey’s speedy transformation from debauched aristocrat to devoted husband.
If you enjoy heroes and heroines working together to solve a mystery as they fall in love, you will like this story.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
A veterinarian and infectious disease researcher by training, Jennifer McQuiston has always preferred reading romance to scientific textbooks. She resides in Atlanta, Georgia, with her husband, their two girls, and an odd assortment of pets, including the pony she promised her children if mommy ever got a book deal.