MY WICKED PIRATE, I was eager to see what all she had lurking under her writerly sleeves. ONCE A RAKE was particularly enticing to me because it's a beauty and the beast retelling, with elements of Phantom of the Opera, as well (the hero wears a mask throughout half the book and is sort of regarded as a tragic, haunting specter that has fallen from grace).
I ended up falling in love with this story. It's so emotional and angsty and really well done on a technical level. Isabel is a beautiful woman who is very passionate about charity work. After her brother's death in the Napoleonic Wars, and seeing her friends suffer similar losses in their families, she's dedicated herself to finding jobs for war widows, especially those with children. This charity work is what leads her to the door of her late brother's best friend, Ashby, who has isolated himself in his estates after taking a shell explosion to the face.
Ashby is so tortured and has so much guilt; he spends all of his time in his wine cellar doing carpentry and at the beginning of the book he is a broken man. When Isabel knew him, he was a gorgeous rake with a soft spot for her, but his guilt over his burgeoning attraction for her as a teenager propelled him into the arms of a woman who betrayed him as soon as she found out he was injured. He's thirteen years her senior, but now she's in her early twenties and can face up to him as an adult. And she still wants him.
I was almost put off by this story because someone said that halfway through the heroine acts out of selfishness. But what happens is actually more of a clash of personalities and a manifestation of the difference in their station. After mooning over him for so many years, she feels just as vulnerable as he is. Being compromised could ruin her future, especially if he has no interest in marrying her. And even if he did, remaining in seclusion while she continued to go out and fete with her friends really would end up destroying their relationship. So I actually liked that they fought so much, because it was the sort of fighting that led to emotional development and intimacy. They fought because they cared about each other and not because they were idiots. I think that's a difference some people overlook.
As I was reading I waffled between four stars and five. I gave MY WICKED PIRATE a four star rating rounded up and I think this is a better book, so I'm giving five stars rounded up with the caveat that the sex scenes are way more purple than I'd like and I thought it was stupid that the hero named his little Ashby "Mr. Jones." But I couldn't give it anything less than five stars because the hero's lines to the heroine made me swoon so hard, and it was such a beautiful journey of healing and intimacy and finding yourself after being lost, and this book actually made me cry when the hero recounted his time during the war when he saw the heroine's brother die, and I LOVED the heroine's friends, and how they had some fights too and said hurtful things, but ended up stronger for it, as well.
The ending was perfect. Paris Nicholas Ashby has my whole heart. It's such a shame that this author doesn't seem to be writing anymore because she's such a talent and her books were so unique.
4.5 out of 5 stars