An earl hiding from his future . . .
Lawrence Browne, the Earl of Radnor, is mad. At least, that’s what he and most of the village believes. A brilliant scientist, he hides himself away in his family’s crumbling estate, unwilling to venture into the outside world. When an annoyingly handsome man arrives at Penkellis, claiming to be Lawrence’s new secretary, his carefully planned world is turned upside down.
A swindler haunted by his past . . .
Georgie Turner has made his life pretending to be anyone but himself. A swindler and con man, he can slip into an identity faster than he can change clothes. But when his long-dead conscience resurrects and a dangerous associate is out for blood, Georgie escapes to the wilds of Cornwall. Pretending to be a secretary should be easy, but he doesn’t expect that the only madness he finds is the one he has for the gorgeous earl.
Can they find forever in the wreckage of their lives?
Challenging each other at every turn, the two men soon give into the desire that threatens to overwhelm them. But with one man convinced he is at the very brink of madness and the other hiding his real identity, only true love can make this an affair to remember.
Publisher and Release Date: Avon Impulse, February 2017
Time and Setting: London and Cornwall, 1816
Genre: Historical Romance
Heat Level: 2
Reviewer Rating: 4.5 stars
Review by Caz
Cat Sebastian’s wonderful début historical romance, The Soldier’s Scoundrel, in which former thief-turned-valet-turned-private investigator, Jack Turner, was called upon to investigate a nasty case of blackmail and found love along the way in the unlikely form of Oliver Rivington, younger son of an earl – was one of my favourite books of 2016. Historical romance as it should be done, the book has a sharp eye for period detail and some degree of social comment as well as strong characterisation and, of course, a beautifully written romance between two characters that hold the readers’ attention and, in this case, gained my affection, too.
Naturally, I’ve eagerly been looking forward to Ms. Sebastian’s next novel and hoping for more of the same – and I’m pleased to report that she doesn’t disappoint. While The Lawrence Browne Affair doesn’t quite top the appeal of the previous book, it’s nonetheless a superbly written story which addresses some difficult themes while showing, at its heart, that everyone needs love, acceptance and understanding, even though it’s sometimes difficult to believe one is deserving of it.
Lawrence Browne, the Earl of Radnor, is plagued by a family history of madness. He lives alone in his dilapidated castle in the wilds of Cornwall, where he devotes his life and entire focus to scientific pursuits, and, at the moment, is working on a method of conveying messages through a complicated system of wires; what we might today call a primitive method of telegraphy. His experiments have resulted in explosions, fires and other mayhem, and as a result of that, and the rumours that he is unhinged, the locals give him a wide berth. Lawrence also thinks that the fact that he is attracted to men is yet more proof of his affliction and he fully expects that the madness that claimed his father and brother will eventually do for him, too. He has given up on ever living a normal life; he doesn’t bother about his appearance, hardly remembers to eat and doesn’t care about his home or estate – and the only person with whom he has any regular interaction or something approaching friendship is the local vicar, the Reverend Halliday. He genuinely cares for Lawrence, and when he hears rumours that Lawrence’s family may be taking steps to have him legally declared incompetent and locked up, he writes to his old school friend, Oliver Rivington, to ask him to find the earl a secretary, someone who can vouch for him if his sanity is ever called into question – and because Lawrence badly needs a secretary.
The vicar’s request arrives at an opportune time for Georgie Turner, thief, swindler and con-artist extraordinare who is also Jack Turner’s younger brother. His latest scam has gone badly awry, with the result that the local crime lord is out for revenge – so when Jack asks him to go to Cornwall to see what he can find out about the Mad Earl, Georgie is only too pleased to get out of London. He’s not really qualified to be a secretary, but he needs to get away from town to think things through and besides, Radnor might prove an easy mark. Once a con-man, always a con-man…
Arrived at the crumbling Penkellis Castle, Georgie is utterly horrified at the state of both the earl and his home, unable to believe that a gentleman would want to live in such a mess and be so careless of his wardrobe and personal hygene. Nonetheless, he sets to work straight away, starting to organise Lawrence’s letters and papers even though the earl, who is resistant to any kind of change, tries to get him to leave by behaving aggressively and unpleasantly. But Georgie has quickly realised that while Lawrence is different, surly and quite brilliant, he is not insane; and also discovers that he actually enjoys his secretarial duties and is very good at them. Once Lawrence accepts Georgie’s presence, the pair strikes up a comfortable working relationship that soon grows into a genuine friendship. There’s also a strong undercurrent of mutual attraction, but Lawrence believes his madness means he cannot have a relationship with anyone, and in any case, he refuses to allow himself to be attracted to a man. Georgie realises that Lawrence struggles to accept change and the reader will recognise that what Lawrence sees as episodes of madness are in fact, intense panic attacks whenever he is confronted with the prospect of something that doesn’t fit into his established patterns. Cleverly, Georgie begins to make small, subtle changes to Lawrence’s daily life in order to make things easier for him, but he never attempts to change the man himself. Sure, he needs a shave, haircut, new clothes, servants and a stable, ordered environment, but most of all, he needs to recognise that he is not mad and to see that he is entitled to love and be loved.
There are a couple of intriguing secondary plotlines in the book running alongside the romance, but this is essentially the story of two people who have to make a major re-evaluation of their self-perception if they are going to be able to accept love and make a future together. Georgie has spent most of his twenty-five years cheating and swindling, having done whatever it took to get out of the poverty into which he was born and determined never to go back there. He’s always compartmentalised his life and likes it that way, but the sudden and unwelcome intrusion of a conscience casts all that to the winds, and he’s left wondering exactly who he is – and whether he will ever be able to go back to his old life. Or if he even wants to.
The relationship between them is beautifully drawn, and Ms. Sebastian does a terrific job showing their growing understanding of each other. Lawrence realises that Georgie is trapped by his view of himself as nothing but a worthless thief; Georgie wants to free Lawrence from the restrictions and judgements he has imposed upon himself due to his supposed madness. Each helps the other to begin to see himself in a different light, and it’s wonderful to watch that happening at the same time as the attraction and affection between them deepens into love. It’s perhaps true that Lawrence’s turn-around from believing his attraction to men is part of his madness to embarking upon a physical relationship with Georgie happens a little quickly, but that’s a minor quibble about what is otherwise a very well-developed romance.
The Lawrence Browne Affair is only Cat Sebastian’s second published novel, yet her writing is so accomplished and assured that it’s almost difficult to believe that to be the case. If you enjoy historical romances with a strong sense of period, fully-rounded, complex characters, a sensual love story and a nice dash of humour, then this book – and its predecessor – is highly recommended.
All this fuss about a couple of small explosions. As far as Lawrence cared, the explosions were entirely beside the point. He had finished experimenting with fuses weeks ago. More importantly, this was his house to burn to the ground if that’s what he wanted to do with it. Hell, if he blew the godforsaken place up, and himself right along with it, the only person who would even be surprised was the man sitting before him.
“Five servants quit,” Halliday said, tapping Lawrence’s desk in emphasis. Dust puffed up in tiny clouds around the vicar’s fingertips. “Five. And you were woefully understaffed even before then.”
Five fewer servants? So that was why the house had been so pleasantly quiet, why his work had been so blissfully undisturbed.
“There was no danger to the servants. You know I keep them away from my work.” That was something Lawrence insisted on even when he wasn’t exploding things. The very idea of chattering maids underfoot was enough to discompose his mind even further. “And I conducted most of the actual explosions out of doors.” Now was probably not the time to mention that he had blown the roof off the conservatory.
“All I’m suggesting is a sort of secretary.” Halliday was dangerously unaware of how close he was to witnessing an explosion of the metaphorical variety. “Somebody to keep records of what you’ve mixed together and whether it’s likely to”—he puffed his cheeks out and made a strange noise and an expansive gesture that Lawrence took to represent explosion—“ignite.”
The Reverend Arthur Halliday did not know what was good for him. If he did, he would have fled the room as soon as he saw Lawrence reach for the inkwell. Lawrence’s fingers closed around the object, preparing to hurl it at the wall behind the vicar’s head. Sod the man for even suggesting Lawrence didn’t know how to cause an explosion. He hadn’t invented Browne’s Improved Black Powder or even that bloody safety fuse through blind luck, for God’s sake.
“Besides,” Halliday went on, “you said you need an extra set of hands for this new device you’re working on.”
Oh, damn and blast. Lawrence knew he shouldn’t have told the vicar. But he had hoped Halliday might volunteer to help with the device himself, not badger Lawrence into hiring some stranger. The vicar was convenient enough, and when he wasn’t dead set on sticking his nose where it didn’t belong, he wasn’t entirely unpleasant company.
“I’ve had secretaries,” Lawrence said from between gritted teeth. “It ends badly.”
“Well, obviously, but that’s because you go out of your way to terrify them.” Halliday glanced pointedly at the inkwell Lawrence still held.
And there again was Halliday missing the point entirely. Lawrence didn’t need to go out of his way to frighten anyone. All he had to do was simply exist. Everyone with any sense kept a safe distance from the Mad Earl of Radnor, as surely as they stayed away from rabid dogs and coiled asps. And explosive devices, for that matter.
Except for the vicar, who came to Penkellis Castle three times a week. He likely also called on bedridden old ladies and visited the workhouse. Maybe his other charity cases were grateful, but the notion that he was the vicar’s good deed made Lawrence’s fingers curl grimly around the inkwell as he plotted its trajectory through the air.
“I’ll take care of the details,” Halliday was saying. “I’ll write the advertisement and handle the inquiries. A good secretary might even be able to manage the household a bit,” the vicar said with the air of a man warming to his topic, “get it into a fit condition for the child—”
“No.” Lawrence didn’t raise his voice, but he slammed his fist onto the desk, causing ink to splatter all over the blotter and the cuff of his already-inky shirt. A stack of papers slid from the desk onto the floor, leaving a single dustless patch of wood where they had been piled. Out of the corner of his eye he saw a spider scurry out from under the papers.
“True,” Halliday continued, undaunted. “A housekeeper would be more appropriate, but—”
“No.” Lawrence felt the already fraying edges of his composure unraveling fast. “Simon is not coming here.”
“You can’t keep him off forever, you know, now that he’s back in England. It’s his home, and he’ll own it one day.”
When Lawrence was safely dead and buried, Simon was welcome to come here and do what he pleased. “I don’t want him here.” Penkellis was no place for a child, madmen were not fit guardians, and nobody knew those facts better than Lawrence himself, who had been raised under precisely those conditions.
Halliday sighed. “Even so, Radnor, you have to do something about this.” He gestured around the room, which Lawrence thought looked much the same as ever. One hardly even noticed the scorch marks unless one knew where to look. “It can’t be safe to live in such a way.”
Safety was not a priority, but even Lawrence wasn’t mad enough to try to explain that to the vicar.
“Villagers won’t even walk past the garden wall anymore. And the stories they invent…” The vicar wrung his hands.
“A secretary. Please. It would ease my mind to know you had someone up here with you.”
A keeper, then. Even worse.
But Lawrence did need another set of hands to work on the communication device. If Halliday wouldn’t help, then Lawrence had no other options. God knew Halliday had been right about the local people not wanting anything to do with him.
“Fine,” he conceded. “You write the advertisement and tell me when to expect the man.” He’d say what he needed to in order to end this tiresome conversation and send the vicar on his way.
It wasn’t as if this secretary would last more than a week or two anyway. Lawrence would see to that.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Cat Sebastian lives in a swampy part of the South with her husband, three kids, and two dogs. Before her kids were born, she practiced law and taught high school and college writing. When she isn’t reading or writing, she’s doing crossword puzzles, bird watching, and wondering where she put her coffee cup.