Feb 13 2013 9:30am

First Look: Julia Justiss’s The Rake to Ruin Her (March 1, 2013)

The Rake to Ruin Her by Julia JustissJulia Justiss
The Rake to Ruin Her
Harlequin Historical / March 1, 2013/ $6.25 print, $5.99 digital

Known as “Magnificent Max,” diplomat Max Ransleigh was famed for his lethal charm until a political betrayal left him exiled from government and his reputation in tatters. He seems a very unlikely savior for a well-bred young lady.

Except that Miss Caroline Denby doesn't want to be saved…she wants to be ruined! To Caroline, getting married is tantamount to a death sentence, and meeting the rakish Max at a house party seems the answer to her prayers…. Surely this rogue won't hesitate to put his bad reputation to good use?

What does the title of Julia Justiss's latest book tell us? That a scandal-ridden rake will ruin a virtuous young woman? Perhaps. But longtime readers of Julia Justiss will know that the truth will be somewhat more complicated than that.

At a country house party, we meet Max Ransleigh, once “Magnificent Max,” a disgraced young man who has nowhere to hide because of his involvement in an assassination attempt on Wellington. He was actually used by a duplicitous French widow who played on his sense of honor, but unfortunately, rumors have a way of sticking. He’s avoiding London and his politically-connected earl father and he’s not welcome at the family home in the country either. Max is, however, always welcome at the country house of his cousin Alastair—even if he has to skulk in the shadows lest his very presence ruin some young lady’s reputation. The timing for a visit is off because Alastair’s mother is hostessing a house party to give her youngest daughter a touch of bronze before her London season.

Our heroine, Miss Caroline Denby, would like nothing more than to be disgraced because marriage does not appeal to her. Her father was the late Sir Martin Denby of the famous Denby Stables, and that is where her heart is. Should I tick off some clichés? Caroline is a wealthy heiress. There’s even a wicked stepmother! Well, she’s not precisely wicked, but she’s certainly not in communion with the needs of her stepdaughter who wants only to manage the Denby stud. Lastly, Caroline is afraid of “The Curse:” not that curse, but a family tradition of females dying in childbirth and how her own mother died.

Max and Caroline have a delightfully witty exchange but Max turns down Caroline’s impossibly inappropriate offer—for Max to ruin her so Caroline can return to her stud. Understandably, Caroline is reluctant to trust anyone to allow her to continue her equine enterprise—husbands held all the financial power in marriage at the time. Magnificent Max expostulates forcibly, after being invited to pretend to ruin Caroline so she can return home in disgrace, that it’s the most “outlandish, insulting and crack-brained idea I’ve ever heard.”  Caroline deliberately dresses in unattractive outfits and she is genuinely unaware of her charms but Max, once having spoken with her privately, and on such an intimate topic, is inevitably drawn into her scheme and looks out for her. Even though she’s not at all interested in him or any other man:

Miss Denby drummed her fingers absently on the bench. ‘I wish I could marry my horse. He’s the most interesting male here …’

What’s great about Justiss is that her couples are always intelligent and capable, they listen to one another and they have traits that are worthy of admiration. Conversation is key in Justiss’s books, truly as important as sexual tension and longing.

Max listens to Caroline, ponders her dilemma, and gradually comes to appreciate the difficulty of Caroline’s position. The inevitable happens, the couple is seemingly compromised and Max does the honorable thing, asking Caroline for her hand in marriage. She refuses him. Isn’t that unusual? Isn’t this where the marriage of convenience usually starts? Caroline refuses Max’s proposal even though she definitely feels attracted to him, saying, as she looks back over her shoulder, “You tempt me too, you know.” But she knows that her world “isn’t Drury Lane, but the lane that leads from the barns to the paddocks.”

The reader knows that there will be an eventual HEA, but it’s a long time coming. Caroline refuses Max, returns to her beloved stud but unfortunately her trustees, convinced no woman could or would turn down an offer of marriage, decide to sell the stud from under her. All her sacrifice and honorable actions now in vain, Caroline races to London to consult her solicitor. This is the pivotal moment of the book. Caroline is forced to approach Max again, cap in hand, so to speak, even though she had promised that she would never hold him to his gallant offer of marriage. He drops to bended knee and asks for the honor of her hand in marriage. Once again, Caroline invites him to consider whether he wants to proceed.

“I have considered it. I’m quite willing to proceed at once.”

A look of befuddled wonder came over her face. “You’ll really marry me, Mr. Ransleigh?”

“If you will have me, Miss Denby,” he replied, amused and a little touched by the enormity of her surprise. It seemed she hadn’t truly believed her last-minute, desperate appeal would succeed.

Did she count the wealth she brought him, her intriguing personality, that ferocious honour and sense of loyalty…that luscious body, of such little worth?

Max would have to show her differently. Marriage to Caroline Denby might even be…fun.

The Rake to Ruin Her is a rare book in that it shows a married life that is markedly different from what we might expect. Caroline has promised Max that after marriage to her ensures the safety of her stud, she will leave him entirely free to live his life as he wants.  She even invites him to travel to Europe to attempt to restore his diplomatic reputation. In her mind, “Max Ransleigh was like the prince who visits the peasant girl in a fable: fascinating, larger than life, but a figure who would touch her life only briefly.” But instead, Max returns to the country with Caroline, thinking that he’ll make a brief husbandly appearance and then be on his way. He is drawn into the rhythm of country life and as Caroline throws off the shackles of deliberate unattractiveness, she blossoms into a confident serene woman, wholly or almost wholly absorbed in her stud and her horses and living the legacy left to her by her father. Without giving too much away, the reader sees Caroline’s life through Max’s eyes and he comes to realize that she is supremely talented and quietly learns from her how to be a helpmeet and a true partner.

If you like your Regencies centered in London with the ton swirling around you, this may not be for you. But if a character study of two honorable, passionate people creating a life together that delights them interests you, then enter Caroline and Max’s world.

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