February must be 'courtesan' month at my house. Somehow I've managed to read three in a row, all with variations on the same theme. All with a different spin, all wonderful.
When I joined GoodReads and starting reading reviews I noticed that lots of people have issues with 'courtesan' romances. I don't get it, myself. It's a plot device, no different than the spinster, or the rake, or the wallflower. The courtesan is never really
a courtesan; she is almost always forced into it due to circumstances beyond her control. Most of the time if she isn't still a virgin she is so inexperienced she might as well be. It is always a romanticized version of a kept-woman or mistress; no street-walkers, doxies or gin-hounds inhabit the pages of historical romance novels. Or at least, not as the heroine. Some of the most romantic, sigh-worthy stories I have read have been about courtesans. And look at Pretty Woman - there's a reason that movie was so popular, and it wasn't all because of Richard Gere.
The first one I read this month was The Duke.
I loved Robert, Duke of Hawkscliffe. Uptight, somewhat repressed, shouldering an overwhelming burden of duty and honour for no other reason than that he has been told all of his life that he must. Just the type of Hero that needs rescuing from himself.
And Belinda Hamilton. I have been reading historical romances for years, and the sheer tenuousness of a woman's position in that society has never been brought home to me more clearly than in this book. In the blink of an eye, Bel loses her father to gaol, her position as teacher at a finishing school, her home, her intended and her future. When we meet her she is selling oranges on a street corner. All of this due to the whims of a spoiled wastrel named Dolph. When she refuses him, he ruins her life. Bel is attacked and raped by the warden from the gaol one night and when she recovers, she approaches a famous courtesan and finds sanctuary in her home.
Hawkscliffe and Bel ally themselves in order to gain revenge on a common enemy. In the process, they fall in love.
Their story is full of choices - heartbreaking ones, like those in real life usually are. Robert must choose between the life he has always thought he would lead, and the life that he actually wants. Watching him fall in love (very much in spite of himself), profess his love, then make some really bad
decisions based on what he thinks
he should do rather than what he wants to do, is wrenching.
And Bel - she must choose as well. To stay with the man she loves and share him, or to leave him, knowing how much he loves her, in order to be true to herself.
I cheered for these two all the way through the book. To be honest I wasn't sure how it would end or if they would get their HEA, even though they deserved it so much.
Their story is wonderfully written. The flirting they do with each other, when they dance together, when she hosts a political dinner at his home, when they kiss, it all feels REAL. The joy they find in each other, the love they feel for one another fairly jumps off the pages. (And so do the love scenes, btw. Very nicely done. There is also a progression to their physical relationship that seems very real - all in stages, just like real life.)
What a wonderful story. Angsty, full of emotion, a historical Pretty Woman. With an ending as big, and as romantic, and as "Aaaawwwww" invoking as the one in the movie.