Ravishing the Heiress
By Sherry Thomas
Publisher: Berkley Sensation
Release Date: July 3, 2012
Fitz had never expected to inherit the earldom. At nineteen, he is still a student at Eton, looking forward to a military career and marriage to Isabelle Pelham, the young lady with whom he has been madly in love for three years. But now he is Earl Fitzhugh and responsible for an estate that’s falling to pieces and eighty thousand pounds of debt. His only honorable option is to exchange his title for the fortune a wealthy wife will bring. Filled with fury and frustration over the situation, he accepts his fate but vows to Isabelle, “No matter what happens, I will always, always love you.”
When Millie sees Fitz with Isabelle at a cricket match, she understands that he is not only being forced to marry her but to part from one he loves desperately. Millie, self-possessed and wise beyond her years, proposes a truly convenient marriage. She and Fitz will agree to a “covenant of freedom,” a period of eight years during which their marriage will remain unconsummated and Fitz will be free to live the unencumbered life of a single man and Millie to follow the life of an unmarried woman while enjoying being mistress of her own household.
Although the marriage is not without painful adjustments for both Millie and Fitz, a friendship grows during the eight years of their covenant. As they work together to restore the dilapidated Henley Park to beauty and prosperity and reinvigorate the faltering business Millie inherits from her father, they build a shared life of common interests, love of home, and social gatherings with family and friends. They come to like and respect one another, and if Millie falls more deeply in love with Fitz and harbors hope for their future, she never speaks of her feelings to anyone. Then word comes that the now-widowed Isabelle Pelham Englewood, who has spent most of the eight years in India with her husband, is returning to England.
Before he can begin a life with Isabelle, Fitz feels honor bound to consummate his marriage. After all, an heir to inherit his noble blood and the Graves wealth was a purpose of the marriage. For six months, he and Millie will be lovers as well as man and wife. After that period, he and Isabelle can be together. But Fitz’s initial jubilation over reuniting with Isabelle is soon tempered by concern over her lack of decorum and its effects on Millie. And the more passionate moments he and Millie share, the more he becomes aware of how important Millie is in his life. He begins to realize that what was true for the nineteen-year-old he used to be may not be true for the man he has become during his marriage to Millie. What’s an honorable man to do when he realizes the woman he swore to love for always is not the one with whom he wants to share the rest of his life?
If you read my review of Beguiling the Beauty, you know I loved the first book in Sherry Thomas’s Fitzhugh trilogy, but Ravishing the Heiress is even better. Millie is one of the most remarkable heroines I’ve encountered in my years of reading romance. Her first response to Fitz is a reminder of how young she is. It has all the wonder and drama of first love and all its vulnerabilities. But even when her heart is shattered, Millie preserves her dignity. Her proposal of the “covenant of freedom” is a self-protective act, but it also shows a rare sensitivity to Fitz’s feelings. She may be young, but she is never self-absorbed. Watching her love for Fitz deepen and her hope for more than friendship persist even through his years of careless love affairs was heart wrenching and made the ending all the more satisfying.
Fitz demonstrates maturity in his tenderness with his sisters, in his acceptance of his responsibilities, and in his recognition of what running away with Isabelle would cost her, but he is in other ways typically young and self-centered. In the beginning of the marriage, he is aware only of his own suffering with no concern about Millie or even consciousness of her as a person. Only gradually does he become aware of the qualities that make Millie exceptional. His is the greater growth because he has further to go.
Reading this book, I was reminded of Georgette Heyer’s A Civil Contract, another book about a titled young man who must give up the one he thinks is the love of his life to marry a wealthy, self-possessed young woman. Unlike many Heyer fans who hate the book for being anti-romantic, I like A Civil Contract. But I always thought Jenny deserved a bit of love’s soaring along with its quiet contentment. Millie gets all that Jenny misses, and that she does makes me love this book all the more. My favorite line in the novel is a comment Venetia, Fitz’s sister and heroine of Beguiling the Beauty makes to Millie, who has paraphrased with some bitterness Byron’s claim that “Friendship is Love without his wings.” Venetia answers her: “No, my dear Millie, you are wrong. Love without friendship is like a kite, aloft only when the winds are favorable. Friendship is what gives love its wings.”
As is always true with a Sherry Thomas book, part of the joy of reading it comes from the richness of the prose. This is not an author intoxicated with words who displays them like ornaments but rather one who employs them with precision to reveal her characters and enhance her themes. She does so in the language of the early scenes that reflect perfectly the youthful protagonists and later in passages like this one in which Fitz acknowledges his curiosity about sexual intimacy with Millie:
“He’d firmly buried that curiosity: A pact was a pact. They’d shaken hands on eight years and eight years he intended to keep his hands to himself.
But buried things had a funny way of sprouting roots and feelers just beneath the consciousness. So that when he did at last acknowledge it, he found himself facing not the same small seed of desire, but a jungle of lust.”
I try to write balanced reviews, but sometimes I love a book so much that I feel as if I have to write with the brakes on to keep from overwhelming readers with my enthusiasm. That’s the way I felt writing this review. I highly recommend this book. And if I could say that with bands playing and flags flying to get your attention, I would.