02 July 2013

Less Than a Gentleman

Summary from Goodreads:

In this never-before-published historical romance, New York Times bestselling author Kerrelyn Sparks returns to the 18th century, where the fight for freedom is as dangerous as the fight for love.

Between searching for the missing Munro sisters and South Carolina being all but lost to the British, Captain Matthais Thomas has more important things to worry about than finding a bride. But his mother has other ideas. When Matthais finds a beautiful woman in his bed who claims to be his betrothed, he is suspicious of her identity…and determined to discover the truth.

Caroline Munro had few options. The British burned down her home, and now, traveling with her very pregnant sister, Caroline is pretending to be someone she’s not so they can have a safe place to rest. But she didn’t count on a matchmaking matron or her rogue of a son…and certainly never dreamed she would fall in love with a spy.

Captain Matthias Murray Thomas leads his men in a daring escape from certain death - the noose, for fighting as Colonialists. As they continue to fight in British occupied South Carolina, the losses are mounting in both people and property. Major Jamie Munro, fresh from a rout in the west, is unable to find his daughters who should have been at a safe location on the Pee Dee river. Matthias agrees to look for the women while disrupting the redcoats' supply lines.

Caroline Munro, her sister Virginia Stanton, and Virginia's two children are fleeing the British - their home has been burned down and their only remaining property stolen by a thief - when they come across a lovely, pristine plantation on the banks of a river. Caroline intends to ask only for shelter but when the elegant lady greets her as Miss Agatha Ludlow, a young lady invited as a potential bride for her son, Caroline seizes the opportunity. She assumes the unknown woman's identity. It means temporary shelter for all four of them, five if Virginia's labor begins.

Thus begins a romance of mistaken identity set amid the horrors of the American Revolution. The plantation belongs to Matthias's father. When Matthias sneaks into his old bedroom he finds Caroline, masquerading as Agatha in his bed. Matthias has no desire to wed the obviously gold-digging Agatha - although this woman feels very different from the Agatha he met previously - and pretends to be the insolent butler Haversham to both avoid marriage and sniff out the truth. Caroline is absolutely determined to avoid Matthias because she has no interest in marrying, especially a soldier. Soldiers die. The butler, though...he seems rather nice. When a local Loyalist, Captain Hickman, appears with the real Agatha Ludlow in tow (who proves to be a spoiled brat) Caroline and Matthias commence a spy operation that ultimately endangers all their lives.

Real historical figures like Tarleton the Butcher and General Cornwallis help to anchor the story within the time period. Although much of the reported violence occurs off-page, especially to that of women in a time of war, Sparks works to keep the danger to the main characters very real. She also touches on the contrasting concepts of freedom and slave ownership though they felt very secondary and Matthias's explanation of why he won't free the slaves even though he detests his father's ideals is weak at best.

The novel was very enjoyable, a quick read on a rainy afternoon, but perhaps not quite as good as other historical romances I recently read. I had a bit of trouble believing that a local Loyalist didn't immediately connect Matthias and his mother. The language at times felt too modern. For example, Matthias's mother is referred to as Jane almost immediately by all the characters which would have been considered ill-bred. The climax of the novel also felt too cluttered with extraneous secondary characters and backstory. The character of Greville, a British soldier who swears vengeance on Matthias for killing one of his men, could have been dispensed with once Hickman is introduced; as it is he is just unnecessary cannon fodder. Quibbles aside, I am interested in tracking down Sparks's earlier book For Love or Country, recently re-released by Avon Impulse as The Forbidden Lady, which tells the story of Virginia and her husband, Quincy Stanton.

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