Author: Christine Merrill
Copyright: 2007 (Harlequin); 290 pgs.
Series: Harlequin Historical # 862 (Regency)
Who: Esme Canville and St John Radwell
Where & When: England
An Unladylike Offer can be read as a stand-alone, but to get a better understanding of St John’s past, particularly in regards to his brother Marcus, Duke of Haughleigh, I would recommend reading The Inconvenient Duchess first.
After five years of fighting in the wars, St John is back in England. He misses his childhood home and he even misses is brother. Once, when they were children, they had been partners in mischief and ready for adventure, but their parents — in a bitter and loveless marriage — pitted them against each other. He made a vow that, if he survived, he would make peace with Marcus.
Toward that goal, St John is trying to reform his character by avoiding new scandal. The Prince Regent, wishing to reward him for his honorable service, has promised him an earldom — provided he behaves himself while waiting for the current, heir-less, holder of that title to pass on. St John doesn’t know how long the old earl will live, but whatever the length of time, he believes it to be worth it if it secures him an income and help him show Marcus he’s a changed man. If he can approach his brother as a peer — a man with honor and responsibilities, and maybe even a wife — his claims of being reformed will carry more weight. However, his good intentions get derailed when Esme Canville shows up, offering to be his mistress.
Esme’s father — a cruel and abusive man — has arranged a marriage for her to the Earl of Halverston, an older man who will no doubt be as horrible as her father (as far as she can tell from her one brief glimpse of him). She is desperate to avoid the marriage and escape her father. If she is ruined, her father will have no choice but to call off the betrothal. St John tries to talk her out of her plans, but she determined to go through with it — with him or with someone else. Fortunately for them both, she snatches his laudanum-laced brandy from his hand and downs it (knowing full well what the glass contained). She passes out, making it easier for St John to take her to the one person he can rely on to protect Esme from herself and others: Marcus.
Though the duke believes he is up to no good, St John is able to convince the duchess to take Esme under her wing and learn the truth of the situation before sending her back to her father. Miranda does exactly that. She comes up with a barely plausible plan, she admits, that will allow Esme time to find a man she prefers and marry him. Marcus grudgingly allows Miranda to include St John in her plans, neither man realizing that Miranda’s plan involves St. John marrying Esme.
Esme is a heroine in pursuit. Though she goes along with Miranda’s plans by considering the other eligible men introduced to her, Esme’s fallen for St John and nothing he does seems to frighten her off. She knows he’s not the cad he once was because he didn’t take advantage of her when he had the chance. Yet, no matter how much he seems to enjoy her company — or how much it seems as if he wants her — St John refuses to offer for her. It’s maddening, and she’s running out of time.
The situation is no better for St John. He’s taking laudanum to avoid the nightmares of what happened in Portugal. He’s trying to prove to his brother that he’s changed, while following Marcus’s orders to discourage Esme by acting like a rake. Talk about cross-purposes. Marcus isn’t convinced of his sincerity, at first, and is still disappointed in him. St John finds himself falling in love with Esme, but can’t — in good conscience — make an offer for her when he has no means of support. Plus, he hasn’t banished the nightmares of Portugal, which includes another heartbreak.
My favorite aspect of the story was the brothers and St John’s struggles to convince Marcus that he was truly sorry for the past and that he was mending his ways. It really touched me, more so than the romance. Probably because I have two brothers who are close. Of course, they are nothing like Marcus and St John. I loved Marcus for going along with St John’s schemes to rescue Esme from her father — gate crashing the betrothal party, consorting with prostitutes and a thief — without so much as blinking an eye. It shows how far he’s come in trusting St John’s judgment.
As to the romance, I liked that Esme calls St John out for being “oh, no, something bad will happened to you” if he admits that he loves her. Esme tells him his more afraid of getting his heart broken again than her well-being. He really needed to hear that it wasn’t his fault that the women he loved died, and it shows that she knows and understands him more than he realizes. But Esme doesn’t know as much as she thinks, as she learns shortly after. Esme is finally successful in her quest to seduce St John, and comes to realize that she’s been acting selfishly. St John’s sense of honor will require him to marry her, and cost him his hard won efforts to reconcile with Marcus and repair his reputation.
Christine Merrill is currently my favorite Harlequin Historical author. Most of her books were/are published first in the UK before they are published in North America. I’ve decided not to wait for Miss Winthorpe’s Elopement to make it across the pond. A Wicked Liaison — which features a character from An Unladylike Offer — will be published this summer in North America (realized this after I ordered it from the UK — I didn’t look closely enough). Looking forward to them both.
“All right. I frighten Lord Canville into giving us his only child, or bludgeon him into cooperation with my title. What are we to do with Esme Canville and her imaginary fever?”
— Marcus, Duke of Haughleigh
“But we do not need your best behavior, St John. We need for you to be a fate worse than death.”
— Miranda lays out her plan
“Finally, the duel I knew must come, that would settle things between us, once and for all. And in the middle of it, you fell asleep. My pride may never recover.”
Started: 7 February 2009
Finished: 9 February 2009