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CaptureI started A Most Unconventional Match (Julia Justiss, 2008) with low expectations. Maybe I’m getting fussy in my old age, or maybe I just have a better idea of what I want. I’ve found historicals can be hit and miss, and Regency novels tend to focus on what the kids call “first world problems,” which can be tiresome. I’d only just finished A Scandalous Marriage, which acknowledged the larger world yet was otherwise disappointing. But a girl can’t just sit there in the bathtub staring at the walls, so I dove in.

Bland title? Check. Love at first sight prologue that also ties this book in with others in a series? Sigh. Check. Things quickly pick up in Chapter One, set a safe seven years after the prologue. Elizabeth is a recently widowed mother, struggling to manage the household despite not knowing how to pay the servants or deal with her husband’s debts.

Two men come to her rescue. First to arrive is Sir Gregory, a friend of her late husband. We know he’s going to be bad guy – he is attentive to her, but dislikes children. Second is Hal, a friend of her sister’s husband. Hal and Elizabeth met briefly when her sister married, and Hal found her very attractive (see prologue), but he’s not interested in marriage, and was relieved when she married.

Hal’s very, very, rich, but unlike some Regency heroes he actually works. He’s like a modern venture capitalist, investing in dikes and early railways, and going to project sites to monitor his investments. He’s got those manly attributes of being big, strong, and good in a bar fight, but he speaks in short clipped sentences, a legacy of childhood stuttering, which leaves others suspecting his intelligence.  He’s a gentleman, but at the edges of polite society. Having lost his father when he was a boy, he is particularly sympathetic to Elizabeth’s son.

Elizabeth is also, well, unconventional. She paints, but this is not the time passing hobby of accomplished young ladies who “paint tables, cover screens, and net purses,”  as Mr. Bingley says. Her house has a dedicated studio, and while painting for commissions is not a respectable occupation for a society woman, it is something Hal supports and encourages.

A few elements of the story stand out. First, Elizabeth turns out to be a strong woman, something I always appreciate, and she is a character who develops and learns things over the course of the story. At the beginning she is clueless about how to pay the servants, but by the end she is hiring and firing staff. When it comes to matters physical, as it does eventually, she takes the lead, from suggesting Hal pose for her to being on top. (I’ve paid attention to this ever since seeing The Return of Martin Guerre in a university film class.) Other reviewers have been shocked that a woman of this class would engage in premarital sex, and so soon after the loss of her husband, but it suits the character, and cynic/realist that I am,  I’m sure it happened.

Hal is no virgin either, but instead of the usual passing reference to former lovers, we get a touching scene when his mistress realizes she is seeing him for the last time. The only drawback to giving her a name and a presence is I’m left wondering why Hal didn’t marry her. Their relationship was more than just sexual. True, she’s not in his class, but given Hal’s disdain for society, surely it might have been an option? At least she’s able to buy a house in the country thanks to his payments and investment advice.

Another unexpected pleasure was the treatment of the late husband. Romances with non-virginal heroines typically denigrate former relationships, to make it clear that this is the one and only true love. Hal is perhaps a better partner than Elizabeth’s husband was – he’s younger, wealthier, and, shall we say, more virile – but the Elizabeth did love him, he is missed, and they were a happy couple.

As Regency era historical romances go, this was much richer and more layered than I was expecting, and a pleasure to read. My bubble bath rating is a generous dollop of Body Shop White Musk.

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