Heartless, by Kat Martin, is a 2001 release from St. Martin’s, though still in print. Having just finished the sombre and low stakes When He Was Wicked, I wasn’t sure about tackling another regency era romance. Heartless has a much different tone, with action and threats aplenty.
Ariel is the teenage daughter of a tenant farmer, but she dreams of grander things. Knowing the old Earl’s fondness for young mistresses, and the generous gifts he gives them, she proposes he pay for her to be educated as a lady. After that, she will become his mistress, though she’s not exactly sure what that entails.
The earl dies before he can collect his payment, but Ariel’s letters over the last two years of his life become one of his few pleasures. On his deathbed, he adopts his previously unwanted bastard son, and charges Justin with continuing to provide for Ariel’s education.
Two years later, Ariel has completed her education, and Justin arranges to meet her at his home in London. Ariel is unaware her original benefactor died, is no longer keen to take on the role of mistress, and has met the charming Phillip. Justin intends only to meet the writer of the letters he has enjoyed, and set her up in a respectable fashion, but when he finds her in the arms of Phillip he changes his mind. He marches her up to his bedroom, and orders her to strip.
Thus begins a relationship marked by repeated threats to virtue, misunderstandings and mistrust, thanks in part to the efforts of romantic rival Phillip, and jealous Barbara, Justin’s half-sister. As the internal obstacles to the relationship are resolved, the external ones become more threatening and melodramatic. Justin is shot (twice!) and Ariel spends time in prison after defending herself from yet another lecherous lord while working as a maid.
Despite the melodramatic flourishes, the story works well. In part this is because the couple are so well suited to each other. They are in society, but spent their childhoods in poverty. They are equally hardworking, intelligent, and ambitious. His attraction to her began with her letters, and she is drawn to his acts of kindness, such as requesting that children at one of his factories work less than the full ten hour shift.
The internal obstacles are her uncertainty over his true nature, and his uncertainty over her character, but both give the other good reasons for their concerns. The external threats to the relationship are directly related to the plot and characters.
At the outset, Ariel is a little too naive about the duties of a mistress. I find it hard to believe that she hasn’t seen farm animals at play, never mind fighting off the advances of her drunken abusive father. Her education is also an odd note. A real lady would not learn Latin and advanced math. She appears to be at more of a boarding school for middle class girls than a finishing school for a lady, however that is more appropriate for her background and the time period.
These elements are in the setup, and as the action and heat pick up they are easily ignored. As with Her Secret, His Surprise this story has just the right mix of romantic fantasy and realism.