This book was an absolute treat to read – like drinking a delicious cup of hot chocolate on a rainy Saturday afternoon. There were no crazy mass murderers that apparently disproportionally populate 19th century fictional England, no gorgeous but evil ex-mistresses spreading confusion and mayhem, no massively intricate and slightly ridiculous revenge plots. Instead, Romancing the Countess gives us a quiet, emotional, and heated love story between two people who have both been broken by the same betrayal and are initially brought together as opponents.
Leah and Sebastian were fascinating characters and the way they are put together and play off one another are what made this book such a delight. Leah has known about their spouses’ adultery for awhile, but Sebastian had no idea that his beloved wife and best friend in the world had been having an affair until they die together in a carriage accident.
Sebastian has to deal with his conflicting feelings of loss that the mother of his child is dead and anger / hurt that two people he trusted had been betraying him. Leah, on the other hand, feels a sense of freedom and for once in her life wants to do what feels right – what she wants to do, as opposed to what she should do. She doesn’t want to wear a veil or suffocate herself in black bombazine and crepe. She is tired of being a wallflower, her husband’s shadow, a woman constrained by societal dictates that she had no part in making, but has been taught since birth to obey.
Both characters are complex and subtly drawn. They are not molds or cookie-cutter HR characters. To say that Sebastian is the cold and stuffy earl who is driven by bitterness and Leah is the rebellious woman who has finally had enough does not begin to do them justice, nor is it even accurate. Like real people, they are never just one thing, but rather are constantly evolving and adapting as things happen and as they make certain choices. Yes, Sebastian is like that – he also teases, laughs, feels passion, acts on it, actively pursues Leah: he’s not Mr. Iceberg. Yes, Leah is like that – she also feels uncertainty, is confused and lonely, longs for simple things, wants to test herself, is frightened of her desire for Sebastian: she’s not Miss Bitchy Indifference.
I prefer romances where the attraction is not instantaneous, but rather develops as the relationship between the two characters changes. Sebastian and Leah have known one another for several years in the roles of “best friend’s wife” and “husband’s best friend,” and are only now beginning to see one another as stand-alone individuals. Their relationship is not simple, smooth, or really even friendly. Sebastian resents Leah her fortitude and apparent acceptance; he hates that he had no idea he was being betrayed by two people whom he loved and lashes out in bitterness at the only one of their foursome left. Finding out about his wife’s adultery has also caused him to doubt whether their son, Henry, is really his. Sebastian fears that any attention Leah brings to herself through scandal might cause society to reexamine their spouses’ deaths, and he doesn’t want his son’s legitimacy to be questioned or for Henry to later be hurt by rumor and innuendo.
Thought it may seem odd, Leah actually looks forward to their interactions. She empathizes with Sebastian: she went through all these emotions not that long ago when she was brought face-to-face with her husband’s affair – literally. Since then, she has felt lonely and isolated with no one to confide in, yet here is someone who she doesn’t have to pretend with. Sebastian knows the truth, as it is one that they share, and while it is ugly and has caused them both tremendous pain, it also provides them with an undeniable – if undesirable – bond.
As always, the back cover blurb doesn’t give a comprehensive picture of what actually goes on. The story and plot are about much more than a house party and while it intimates that Leah plans to do something scandalous, like pass around her husband’s love letters or some such thing, that is not the case. Much occurs beyond that house party and one of the things I really loved was that even though I of course knew where this was going to end up – in The World of HEA – I honestly was not sure what journey the author would take us and her characters on to get there.
I wish both Leah and Sebastian had been more open with one another in the second half, as opposed to holding back. While I completely understood Leah’s reservations and sexual hang-ups and thought March dealt with them well, I wanted Leah to somehow let Sebastian know earlier on that he wasn’t the reason she ran from him. Another criticism is that at the beginning of each chapter there were quotes from Angela’s love letters to Ian (Sebastian’s wife, Leah’s husband). They’re the “bad” (if dead) characters in this drama; they exist in so far as their actions affected the spouses they left behind, not in any present sense, since we only ever know them as deceased. I therefore wasn’t sure what the point of the quotes was and didn’t like their inclusion. Finally, though this is a small thing since it’s easy to forget her age, I wish Leah had been made older. I like to know our characters’ ages and we never know Sebastian’s.
There were times when I wanted to scold Leah or Sebastian for what they said to the other, but in a way it made me enjoy their relationship all the more. They’re two people in pain, who had been deeply in love with their respective spouses only to find out they were being cheated on; for them to easily fall in love with and trust one another would have been unrealistic and fake. Their growing attraction is lovely and while yes, it’s one between two people who have been hurt and end up helping one another heal, there’s no doubt in my mind that had Leah and Sebastian been put together before either of them met Ian and Angela (respectively), a connection between them would have developed. They complement one another so well that in my mind it would have been inevitable. The fact that Sebastian and Leah get their happiness together after having suffered through such heartbreak only makes their love story that much sweeter.
One of My Favorite Quotes:
Sebastian closed his eyes, his chin sinking toward his chest. How long he’d been trapped by those words, afraid to scare her away. How long he’d hoped that after she dealt with Ian’s ghost she would one day turn to him. Her confession of her relationship with Ian while they sat in the tree had been one step, her willingness to let him pleasure her another, and yet still it wasn’t enough. He wanted everything: her trust, her joy, her heart, her vulnerability.
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Slightly Dangerous by Mary Balogh