Dear Ms. Justiss:
Beautiful cover. Writing for these upper tiered lines at Harlequin must make you thrilled because you can usually expect a gorgeous, arty cover which is what convinced me to buy this book in the first place. I have a love/hate relationship with courtesan novels. Usually the courtesan is a faux courtesan, one whose protector is impotent and she remains untouched until the hero comes along. Having a courtesan allows an author in historical times, to give the heroine a measure of sexual and financial independence which is refreshing. In your book, Belle is neither.
Belle meets Jack when he comes to see her fence. Watching Belle fence and being granted the opportunity to fence against her is a popular pastime amongst the gentlemen of society. Jack, who has just returned from battle, is unpacking in his things in a borrowed residence where he will stay until he can arrange for more permanent lodgings. A friend of his comes to his room and convinces him to attend of fencing lesson. It is the fencing lessons of Lady Belle, the former mistress of the deceased Lord Bellingham. Lady Belle does not desire anyone to watch her, but word of her lessons swept through society men and they came, despite her charging admission. Lady Belle then took up to fence with one gent per session, beating them each time.
Jack is smitten but realizes that he could never afford a woman like Belle. Belle, herself, has enough money to retire to the country. She is not going to choose a new protector and must leave before the season begins because her sister will be appearing in London soon. Belle is from a good family and the story of her downfall is quite tragic, yet perfectly believable.
At the next fencing session, Belle chooses Jack. Jack is a superior swordsman. Belle realizes that Jack is toying with her and becomes enraged, as it is symbolic of her place in the world. She begins to fight in greater earnest. Her button falls off but she does not stop and eventually stabs Jack, creating a dangerous wound. Jack would not be able to make a journey to the country where his family is and there is no one to take care of him at his borrowed rooms. Belle reluctantly agrees to house Jack and to see him nursed to health. It is during this period of time that Jack and Belle fell in love.
The progression of the book is slow, but interesting. There are very dark overtones in the book. In the beginning of the story, Jack is told a tale of a public coupling between Belle and Lord Bellingham. It is clear that it is an event that Lord Bellingham used to cow and humiliate Belle. I cringed as I read it. The circumstances that led Belle into service were not only believable but tragic. I really wanted Belle to overcome her past and find some happiness in her future.
The problem is that because of Belle’s past degradation, it was hard for me to believe in her redemption. Could she really be sexually attracted to Jack even though Jack treats her like an equal rather than a sexual prize to be won? And how can a HEA be achieved when Jack’s sister is coming out and he cannot really stand a scandal to affect her marital chances. And even if Jack’s family wasn’t a concern, how could he effectuate a long term relationship between them? I couldn’t buy that someone who had been the subject of so much public entertainment could be accepted into society. The villain in this tale was horrible and to a great extent, over the top. I was a bit disappointed that you had Belle suffer even more at the hands of the villain. Belle is kidnapped, branded and raped in the 4th chapter from the end.
Having said that, I applaud you for taking chance and writing giving a completely different, but probably more believable slant, to the Courtesan story. Belle and Jack deserved an HEA no matter how improbable it was worked out. B-