A Notorious Countess Confesses by Julie Anne Long
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I've been trying to find romance novels I didn't want to fling into a wall for the longest time. The beta male trope seems to avoid a lot of the issues I have, so I did a search on Smart Bitches, Trashy Books for the phrase. It turned up a few books, and this was among them.
Evie Duggan has been an actress, courtesan, wife of a count, and infamous widow. She goes to the small town of Pennyroyal Green trying to escape her reputation. But the townsfolk have heard the rumors, so she's snubbed. She enlists the vicar, Adam Sylvaine, in helping her to make friends. He sees right through her layers of pretense, and he's intrigued by what he sees, while she's off-balance and vulnerable. She finds she feels safe with him despite her vulnerability, and from there, the attraction grows.
This is a Regency-era romance, so the two are stymied by the manners and expectations. She's far too scandalous to be linked to the vicar, even if he is of a famously hot-blooded family. Their efforts to stay apart are entirely supported by the social structure of Pennyroyal Green, and the times. Their attraction is a long, slow burn. And Julie Ann Long puts that tension to good use. Dabbing ointment on a cut and putting on a necklace have never sounded so sexy.
The characters are strongly drawn. Adam values the truth, while Evie is layers upon layers of lies. That the lies are hiding a kinder, more sensitive, loving soul draws him in, and with good reason. Meanwhile, she's regularly knocked off-balance by his refusals to flirt and verbally spar. It's easy to feel her frustration, and his growing tenderness. I felt very invested, as the story went on, in her allowing herself to love, and his finding a way to be with her despite the villagers' disapproval.
This is part of a series about the people of Pennyroyal Green, and the book hints at a lot of events and people from other books. I'm unfamiliar with the other books, but I was still able to follow their stories within the context of this one. I don't know if all of the other characters were fleshed out so well because they'd already had their own books or would have them in the future, but nobody felt like background noise or like a two-dimensional prop. Everyone had motivations and lives and hopes and dreams and fears. And many of them are enriched by Evie's influence.
This is not what I've come to expect from romance novels. The characterizations were good, the conflicts felt real, and I was truly invested. Which was why, instead of stopping at the halfway mark last night like I meant to, I stayed up half the night to finish it. I don't think I could've slept, wondering about how they were going to overcome the various obstacles in their path.
I don't see myself going after other books in the series, though. I'm getting a strong alpha male vibe from the other male characters in Pennyroyal Green. No need to sully my opinion of this author by forcing myself through a book I'm primed to dislike. I'm going to quit while I'm ahead.
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