A Gentleman Undone  - Cecilia Grant Apparently, all it takes is a mistress with rough sexual appetites and an ex-military hero without all the woobie rake angst to squeeze 5 stars from my cold, dead hands. Granted, A Gentleman Undone is barely a literary masterpiece, but it ranks worlds above the rest of the regency crap I've been reading lately. If more authors would write like Cecilia Grant, then maybe I wouldn't bitch so much about the tepid quality of historical romance these days.

SUMMARY:
When Will Blackshear (former lieutenant) returns to London after experiencing the nightmare of Waterloo, he has no intentions of getting involved with any ladies. A man of modest means and the youngest son in the Blackshear family, Will has decided to spend his military commission on a business venture to help the widow of one of his deceased subordinates from the war. He can't afford much more than his tiny bachelor lodgings, so there's no way he can afford a mistress. Even if he can't stop thinking about some other dude's mistress he keeps encountering at a gaming hall. Lydia Slaughter, former prostitute at some anything-goes House of Horrors (Whores) and current mistress to a wealthy gentleman who can also perform mighty well in bed, is content with her circumstances at the moment. Sure, she doesn't want to be a mistress forever, but her current protector has the good sense to take her to gaming halls and falls asleep so she can take part in some gambling. Lydia has a very mathematical mind, so she ends up as something of a 19th-century card counter. At first, Will and Lydia start up a tentative friendship to achieve a common goal. He needs money and doesn't understand that odds trump luck. She needs money and understands the importance of odds but can't gamble high stakes because she's a woman. They team up in order to make a killing at vingt-et-un, no hanky-panky allowed.


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But please. This is a romance. You know the hanky-panky's just around the corner. Can a man without the means to provide for a wife or mistress win the heart of a distant woman who only wants her independence?

Lydia is an amazing character. She was raised among the gentry, but her ruination and the deaths of her remaining family members thrust her into desperate straits. So Lydia becomes a prostitute and remarkably never bitches about it. She sees the world through a very logical lens, so she considers her current profession a means to an end. All Lydia desires is a quiet life with a little home that she can afford to keep. Fortunately for Lydia, being a mistress doesn't bother her too much because she genuinely enjoys sex. I know! The absence of slut-shaming! It's a miracle! Her biggest problem with being a "kept woman" stems from having to cater to her protector's beck and call all the time. It was very refreshing to read about a heroine who didn't leave her reasoning skills at the door (or lose them along with her goddamn maidenhead). Women are so rarely portrayed in these stories as rational characters, so Lydia's a bit of a treasure to me.

Will's definitely my type of hero. He's a bit beta yet incredibly sexy. The war really messed him up emotionally. Don't read this spoiler if you plan to read the book! After the carnage of Waterloo, Will moved one of his men when the medics ignored the poor guy. Unfortunately, this guy also had a spinal injury, so moving him pretty much sealed his death certificate. When Will couldn't get him into a hospital where a physician could give him something for the pain, he mercy-killed the poor fellow so he wouldn't suffer. That haunts Will throughout the story and drives his motivation to help the fallen soldier's widow into a comfortable life. So aside from the requisite tortured soul stuff, Will's a pretty honorable guy. He resists coming onto Lydia because he doesn't want to step on her protector's toes. I liked that Will didn't have the entire world at his fingertips. He isn't wealthy, probably never will be wealthy, and doesn't harbor any delusions that he could be wealthy. No long-lost titles deux ex machina into the plot like some ill-place karate warrior and provide Will and Lydia with a happily-ever-after. The ending, which I refuse to spoil, is satisfying but realistic. Will is a character who has to sacrifice a great deal to get his happy ending.

The romance is rather exceptional. There's a lot of build-up between Will and Lydia. They truly get to know each other, circling around their mutual attraction, before they even kiss. And then, thank the romance gods, the sex isn't some boring exercise in (take your pick) teaching the heroine how nipples work, comparing each other to past lovers to prove that this is TWU LOVE, taking a page-long break so the hero can apologize to the heroine for breaking her maidenhead, etc. The sex has just as much to do with the characters and where they are emotionally as it does with bumping uglies. The love-making isn't always easy, and it makes Will and Lydia even more interesting as characters.

I'll definitely try out Cecilia Grant's other novel, but that one will have to wait. I don't want to consume all of her books at once. These characters are just different enough from the romance standards of the day that I don't want to rush a good thing.