In a genre built on, and sustained by, a set of established tropes that the reader instantly recognizes — and even selects for — it isn’t too often that I read a new romance where my main impression is, “Well, that was different!” Tropes work, and standards appear in every genre (though they’re disparaged much more often in romance,) and the skill of the author is revealed by his/her ability to work within their architecture and still craft a memorable, distinct, and competent story. Cecilia Grant took one look at that challenge, scoffed, and fed it to the cows.
A Lady Awakened features a Victim of Circumstance heroine and a twist on the Marriage of Convenience plot, though it’s less of a marriage and more of a Conception. Recently widowed Martha Russell never produced an heir with her late husband, and unless she managed to become pregnant before his passing, the estate will go to her scoundrel brother-in-law. Believing that Mr. Russell was the source of the infertility, as he had never impregnated his first wife either, Martha conspires to protect the estate, with its staff and tenants, from the loutish degenerate who will assume control by enlisting the help of a virile neighbor. As the shocked Theo Mirkwood confirms himself, once Martha has put forth her plan, “‘I understand you to have just proposed to engage me as your whore.’ He gave one last cough. ‘Is that correct?'”
It is. Theo agrees to a month of daily no-nonsense, conception-focused fornication with Martha as a plausible time window to knock her up without anyone being able to say for certain that her late husband wasn’t the father. Thusly, what follows is the most implied sex, combined with the most dispassionate sex, that I recall reading in a romance. Martha’s commitment to only the most perfunctory motions is formidable, and I have to give props to Cecilia Grant for following through on her characterization and not going the typical route of a slow seduction. Many readers, no doubt, will be frustrated by Martha’s implacability, and I myself draw somewhat of a parallel to Bel in A Lady of Persuasion, who I found sanctimonious and contrived in her objections to sensuality. Martha’s position is actually much more practical: in the first place, should she manage to conceive, she will be expected to stay on in mourning as the lady of the house, not immediately to jump into another marriage/relationship, and that’s even assuming they actually like each other. So why bother developing feelings that have no future?
Furthermore, when it comes to seduction, Martha’s true sexual organ is her brain. She simply doesn’t go for lines or pleasures of the flesh when she thinks the guy is a flake, or doesn’t have any evidence to know otherwise. Likewise, she wants to be respected for her mind, so when all that a lover has to offer are simpering words about beauty and the smoothness of her skin, she doesn’t feel appreciated any differently or more than any other woman who has probably heard those same words. Unfortunately for Theo, his reputation as a rake is a blessing and a curse in that aspect, because she selected him on the basis of his prowess, but it’s going to take extra work on his part to get her to see him as more than the guy whose father forced him to go do some hard work in the country because he wasn’t gaining any character fopping about in London.
Rest assured that this is a romance, and that Theo is able to overcome his frivolousness and Martha learns to appreciate actual pleasure. But the road to these developments was hard-fought and, therefore, well-earned.