In Love in the Time of Scandal, Caroline Linden pulls off a rare feat — making you fall for a character who was set up as a bit of an arse in an earlier book. But don’t worry! He gets redeemed and totally earns his HAE. (While some romance series don’t necessarily need to be read in order, I highly recommend at least starting with the second book in the Scandalous series, It Takes a Scandal, so you get the full backstory for this book. The whole series is excellent and you can’t go wrong starting at the beginning, either! This review will have spoilers for ITaS, so proceed with caution.)
When they first met back in It Takes a Scandal, Penelope Weston found herself intrigued by Benedict Lennox, Lord Atherton, and even went off alone with him during a gathering in the hopes of stealing a kiss from him. In a blow to her pride, he decided to pursue another woman — her sister, Abigail. Ouch. Abigail rejected his suit, however, since she was totally in love with Benedict’s estranged childhood best friend, Sebastian Vale. In another blow to Penelope’s regard for Benedict, she witnessed him making no effort to help Sebastian, who was injured in the war and had to practically crawl out of the Lennox house after a party. It also doesn’t help that Benedict’s father once accused Sebastian of stealing a large quantity of money from; a charge Benedict never attempted to refute.
By the time Love in the Time of Scandal starts, she basically hates him — which makes it sting even worse when she finds out he’s courting another (young and silly) friend of hers. She’s lonely enough following the marriages of her sister and best friend, so she really doesn’t want to lose another companion. Penelope has a bit of a problem keeping her mouth shut, so when Frances asks her for advice, she kind of steps in it and tells her to make sure Benedict loves her. He doesn’t, of course, since most Society marriages are based on merely finding someone you hopefully won’t grow to loathe, so when he proposes during a ball, she rejects him, letting slip that she’d talked with Penelope. Let’s just say that doesn’t go over well.
Meanwhile, Penelope has followed a widowed friend who looked scared while leaving the dance floor and interrupts what looks like a very unwilling assignation. Olivia escapes, but Lord Clary tries to assault Pen and is fortuitously interrupted by Benedict, who was still furious about Penelope’s interference in his life but of course comes to her rescue as soon as he sees that she’s in danger. Unfortunately for the both of them, Frances and her mother come upon them while he has his hands up her skirt to check out the ankle she sprained in the altercation with Clary, and suddenly it looks like her interference was rather self-serving. The only thing that might save her reputation from being utterly compromised is the fact that Frances might keep her mouth shut to keep everyone from thinking they’d made a fool of her (and to keep people from thinking she’d been tainted by friendship with an apparent loose woman). Clary wants revenge, though, and when vicious rumors start spreading about Penelope, she has no other option but to accept Benedict’s proposal. She’s reluctant not only because she can’t forgive his past actions, but also because she’s afraid that since she’s still wildly attracted to him despite all that, she might fall in love with him and has no hope that he’d reciprocate.
While Benedict is too much of a gentleman to let Penelope’s reputation suffer because of vicious lies, she’s not exactly his ideal bride either. He likes Pen, but he’d planned to marry someone who he could have a peaceful, drama-free life with. He doesn’t see that happening with her, since they seem to clash every time they talk. At least she has the large dowry he needs in order to be independent from his father, and they’ll just have to work on the rest. Fortunately for both of them, their mutual attraction translates into a pretty awesome sex life (helped along by her secret addiction to the 50 Ways to Sin pamphlets that have been scandalizing London).
We also start to see more about why Benedict has done some of things that so frustrate Pen — his father is an abusive horror story, and even as adults he and his sisters are still terrified of his anger. Benedict is too old to beat these days, but he can still be cut off without a penny or banned from visiting his mother (and left to imagine what she might be suffering at her husband’s hands). Having grown up in a loving family, Penelope can’t quite understand why it’s so hard for anyone to defy him — until she learns firsthand just how far he’ll go to protect his own interests, no matter who it hurts. But will that be enough to finally heal all the rifts between her and Benedict? Or will it drive them apart forever?
I always love Caroline Linden’s historical romances, and this is no exception. Even her wallflowers are far from shrinking violets, and her characters are sex-positive even when everyone around them would condemn them for having the slightest notion of what sex even is. Not many authors can pull off making a formerly unlikeable hero downright lovable without making the heroine a bit of a doormat in the process, but she pulls it off. True, I was initially put off a bit by the 50 Ways to Sin stories that link the series together, but they mercifully have nothing except a number (and outrageous popularity) in common with that other 50 series. I also never did quite figure out what exactly the Olivia/Clary subplot was all about, but in the end it didn’t really matter. What did matter was that we got a better understanding of Penelope and Benedict and were able to root for them without reservation. That’s the best kind of romance in my book.
Disclosure: I received an advance copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest opinion.