The book, published in 1995, has a definite old school feel to it. First, there is a rape in it. No, this is definitely NOT forced seduction. The hero absolutely rapes the heroine. It is an act of power, and an act of sheer brutality. He does it because he can. And it's harrowing to read. Second, the story is completely character driven. There is quite a conflict between the characters, but there is no ancillary nonsense going on. It is strictly a love story, which is wonderful. Third, and I think most compelling for me, is the redemption of the hero. Sebastian Verlaine is a Very Bad Man. And the route that Gaffney takes to attempt to redeem him is one that was fascinating to read.
Suave, cynical, and too handsome for his own good, Sebastian Verlaine never expects to become a magistrate judging the petty crimes of his tenants and neighbors. Nor can the new Viscount D’Aubrey foresee that, when a fallen woman appears before him, he’ll find himself beguiled against all reason to alter her terrible fate....
Rachel Wade has served time in prison for her husband’s violent death, but she soon discovers that freedom has its own price. For no one will offer her a second chance but a jaded viscount who needs a housekeeper. Scorned by the townspeople of Wyckerley as D’Aubrey’s mistress, tempted beyond her will by the devilish lord, Rachel risks all she had to claim a life of her own...and a love that will last for all time.
Rachel is has been released after 10 years in prison, but is arrested again for indigence. She claims to have been robbed of her money, and was returned to Wyckerley, the site of her first trial to stand trial again. Sebastian is immediately fascinated by this woman. She's tall and thin, she has dark hair, except for a thick strand of gray at her temple. She refuses to make eye contact, she's practically concave, she's so determined not to offer any offense. More than that, she shows absolutely no emotion. She's a blank slate. And with that, Sebastian finds his newest distraction. He decides to take her into his custody as his housekeeper. There she'll work off her fine and report to the sheriff once a week to check in on her parole. But more than that, Sebastian will seduce her, and toy with her, and make her his entertainment.
Rachel is fully cognizant of his plan. She realizes that by accepting the posting, she will be subject to both Sebastian's whims and to his use of her body. She feels she has no other choice, despite the fact that she has no experience as a housekeeper. She agrees to his offer, and they travel to Lynton Hall.
They begin a tortuous relationship, with Sebastian constantly pushing Rachel to do things that make her uncomfortable, constantly trying to break down that facade of emotionlessness. It's all a game to him. Except that there is the tiniest inkling of interest in him, which of course, he squashes.
Rachel suffers from nightmares about prison. One night, when she wakes from one, she goes to the library to find the dullest book possible to put her to sleep. Sure enough, the book works, but when she awakes, moments after falling asleep Sebastian is there. And with little to no feeling he tells her that it's time. And then he rapes her. The scene is brutal, horrible, and truly shocking. The entire time I was reading it, all I could think was, "You bastard!" and "No possible way Gaffney can redeem him."
As regular readers of this blog know, I'm a proud member of the romance old school. While I understand the complaints that many readers have about forced seduction scenes, I love many old school romances that have forced seduction in them. But this scene pushed at my limits. There was no emotion. No eventual capitulation. Rachel never felt anything except horror at what was happening to her.
Soon after this, Sebastian invites some of his most dissolute acquaintances from London to visit him. He forces Rachel to act as his hostess. One of his guests, Sully, is actually the heir to Rachel's dead husband. And quickly, the guests begin looking at Rachel as a game. Sebastian allows them to toy with her, asking horrible, invasive questions, and forcing her to answer. Until Rachel finally flees the room. Sully asks Sebastian whether Rachel is his, to which Sebastian answers no. And Sully leaves to go find Rachel, to force her to have sex with him.
No one spoke for a moment, then they all spoke at once, in low voices full of lewd enjoyment and manufactured shock. Sebastian couldn't hear the words over the soft buzzing in his ears. Something was tearing inside. Something was coming completely apart.[...]
He felt the tear down the middle of himself widening, and that was wrong it shoudl have been narrowing. He'd just done a thing to make himself whole again. [...]
Something happened then. He wasn't on the piano bench with Kitty on his lap. He was halfway across the room. He heard a snap in his head, exactly like a bone breaking, and at once the eerie fugue state evaporated. His past and his future had broken cleanly in two. This, now, was the present, a violent limbo he had to smash his way out of to survive.
And with that, Sebastian goes and rescues Rachel from Sully's attempted rape.
It is after this, Sebastian realizes what a bastard he has been. And he slowly, gradually begins to attempt to befriend Rachel. For her part, Rachel has literally never had someone take an interest in her. Her experience with her husband and in prison has left her emotionally scarred and bereft. Sebastian begins to woo her. By apologizing for his treatment of her, by giving her small gifts, by nurturing a friendship that would encourage her to confide in him. And as they get to know each other, their attraction grows. Soon they are lovers again, and are both truly happy and are falling in love. Rachel knows that Sebastian will leave Lynton Hall at some point, and she keeps telling herself to enjoy what she has now. But Sebastian keeps pushing at her barriers, and wants to know Rachel completely. And soon she's fallen for him utterly.
I liked Rachel tremendously. In fact, if I were to do my favorite heroines again, I believe I would list her. But I couldn't get over how Sebastian victimized her. And in the end, I'm not able to say that I completely loved this book. I admire the prose and the characterization, the pacing, the setting and the plot. But Sebastian's brutality just isn't something I can forgive.
Final grade: C-