Previously published in Virtues of Christmas. Henrietta Whitlow is leaving behind the life of a very successful courtesan in hopes of making peace with her family in the shires. Michael Brenner’s family all but ignore him, despite his shiny new baronial title, and his errand along the Oxford road isn’t half so benign as Henrietta’s. While trying to settle a debt of honor involving Henrietta, Michael instead loses his heart and comes to understand the true meaning of holiday spirit.
Dear Ms. Burrowes,
Of course I’d heard of your name but for some reason I’ve never read one of your books before despite other DA reviewers liking them. When I was searching for novellas to read for Christmas, my library had this one and I was intrigued about the courtesan aspect. Frankly, I wasn’t sure but thought what the heck, why not? Within a few pages I was hooked.
Henrietta Whitlow is on the road in December, trying to reach home. She’s been trying to get back home for ten years now and been rebuffed but this is her one last effort. First, she needs to somehow get an uppity inn keeper to let her rest for a while as her coachman seeks a blacksmith to see to a horse’s shoe. Michael Brenner hears the hubbub and intervenes, inviting Henrietta to share his parlor and a meal. Like the innkeeper, he knows who she is – one of the most celebrated and sought after courtesans in London. Michael also has another reason for being at the inn; he’s trying to get something from Henrietta and knows she’ll travel this way.
Eating with this beautiful woman is an experience for Michael. Henrietta is beautiful, poised, intelligent, and nobody’s fool. She lets drop the tidbit that she has retired and is traveling home. Michael can easily see why men of wealth and power sought a contract with this woman as she mesmerizes him while casually telling him she’d only had six protectors – a ghastly word, Michael comes to feel, as none of these men protected her, only made use of her.
The more they talk, the more they discover they have in common. Henrietta loves to read, something her father sought to withhold as later we learn he didn’t want her to turn into a bluestocking. Michael grew up poor, somehow (I was a bit hazy about this) ended up in a public school where he inhaled learning before eventually (also hazy) becoming a spy before ending up a newly minted baron. A (frankly delightful) discussion between their coachmen (both Scottish and they know each other) reveals that both Henrietta and Michael are well thought of by their servants who hatch some plot to bring them together. But Michael’s word of honor requires him to carry through with his plan which – of course – will come to light at the worst time. Is the budding attraction between these two doomed before it even gets going? Or can they help each other while helping themselves?
I think it’s important to note that Henrietta isn’t the only one looking for respect. Michael is Irish and has had his own battles to fight for respect from the English. Both have some degree of estrangement from family. Henrietta’s father has been unbending in refusing to talk to her and we learn that she did write and plead to return home after being seduced and ruined. Her brothers and their families accept her but not papa. Michael has been trying to get his sisters to visit him at his (fairly) newly purchased estate but so far, nothing. Now I don’t equate their different issues. Henrietta has, by far, been treated the worst by society so the most effort is expended on getting her the respect she deserves from her father who was the driving factor behind what put her at risk in the first place.
There is a lot of emotion in the book but it doesn’t get emotional if that makes sense. There are no scenes of fiery showdowns. Michael and Henrietta are slightly older (both mid to late 20s). Michael has been a spy and can control what he shows the world while Henrietta has been paid well to act a part and let men see only what they want to see. The scene where these two come together because they want to rather than because they have to is a revelation to both. Henrietta finally gets to demand what she wants and enjoys from sex and Michael is enthralled by this. So when she discovers what he’s done, well … Michael realizes fully what he’s done and lost. I did like that this scene didn’t go quite as I’d expected it would.
Then comes making amends. Bravo that Michael has listened to what Henrietta really wants and he sets about helping make that happen. Even more though, Henrietta has already begun the campaign and fired the first few salvoes rather than waiting on someone else to help her. I liked Henrietta. A lot. Henrietta has also done something to help Michael get what he wants and the fact that she did it before knowing what he did lets me know that he has become important to her. They act independently for the other, all without expecting that this will heal the break between them. The reconciliation is one that fits the two of them.
My complaints are for Henrietta’s father who seems a bit of an ass at times in the way he treated his daughter and the high handed manner in which he meant to marry her off. Also, the more serious nature of what happened to Henrietta – no matter how skillfully she eventually managed this – makes the insta-love harder to swallow for me. Now, do I believe that all the neighbors are going to forget Henrietta’s background? No, not really but I like that her background isn’t ignored either. Michael has a title but it’s not a high ranking one and Henrietta is from gentry rather than aristocracy so thinking that they will be able to live in the country and be happy is something I can believe. B
Another long time reader who read romance novels in her teens, then took a long break before started back again about 25 years ago. She enjoys historical romance/fiction best, likes contemporaries, action- adventure and mysteries, will read suspense if there’s no TSTL characters and is currently reading more fantasy and SciFi.