I have been breathlessly recommending Scarlett Peckham’s writing from the moment I first discovered her magnificent prose in The Duke I Tempted, and I’ve been eagerly awaiting her second novel ever since. A mix of tropes that are essentially my catnip—a marriage of convenience between two people who appear to hate one another, with an unrequited love twist thrown in to up the angst—this Regency-era romance continues the Secrets of Charlotte Street series with a story that is so much more than the sum of its tropes. Brimming with emotion, passion, and plenty of pining, Scarlett Peckham’s latest offering is a touching portrayal of two people finding out what they mean to themselves and to each other by pretending to be something they are not. It’s by far one of my favourite reads of the year.
“It matters, Constance. It matters what you did. It matters when you hurt people.”
As one of the most rebellious young women in all of London, Lady Constance Stonewell is known to be a spirited hellion who never conforms to society’s expectations, and whose favourite pastime is collecting gossip. But when the very man she’s been secretly yearning for since she was a teenager ends up caught in a scandal of her own making, Constance rushes to fix the situation the only way she knows how—by proposing marriage.
Of course he could pretend. Of course. He could, because adoring her came as naturally as drawing breath. He had loved her for eight years. What was four more weeks?
Constance’s actions, however, not only threaten to destroy the character of a man who has spent the past eight years trying to become the kind of man who has more to offer to a woman than a crumbling earldom, but they also end up killing any hopes he’s ever had of finally proposing to the woman he has loved for just as long. Because Julian Haywood, the Earl of Apthorp, has only ever pined for one woman and one woman alone— Lady Constance Stonewell—a woman whose irrepressible wit and free spirit had always made her infinitely endearing to him, but who he now only sees as cruel and reckless. So when he agrees to her plan, he does so planning to stop loving her, too.
“When it’s over, we will never speak again.”
As Constance begins to weave a complicated maze of lies and manipulations to restore her fake betrothed’s social standing, a decade-long worth of misunderstandings and heartbreak slowly begins to rise to the surface, affecting their every interaction and reshaping the way they see themselves in the other’s eyes. Julian discovers that all the years he spent hiding his true feelings behind a stiff, faultless façade of a true gentleman have only served to hurt his beloved and make her feel rejected and inadequate, while Constance learns that loving someone means never being reckless with their heart.
If he’d learned one lesson in the last two weeks, it was that his efforts to protect his heart had bruised hers.
I adore stories in which the characters battle their own flaws even as they work to overcome adversity, and Scarlett Peckham does a marvellous job at humanizing her characters by unapologetically displaying their shortcomings alongside their qualities. Constance and Julian both hide their true selves from everyone around them, pretending to be stronger, more confident, more emotionally resilient than they truly are, all the while being frequently struck by moments of oppressive solitude of the soul where they feel inept and self-conscious. Loving one another gives them the sense of belonging they’ve both been aching to find in life, as well as the freedom to be completely themselves with the one they love. At last.
She would not have to disguise her love of devilry nor her too tender heart to be found winning. She would not have to exercise beguilement to captivate his interest nor dampen the contours of her character to maintain it. He would adore her wholeheartedly and without reservation and above all without the least the imposition of her will. He would be wholly, unconditionally insane for her, and that’s how she would know he had, finally, arrived.
With a voice that is agile and commanding, Scarlett Peckham weaves a rich, lyrical and utterly absorbing tale of unrequited love and the perils of misconstrued intentions. I found myself lingering over her beautiful sentences, reading them time and time again, desperate to absorb every nuance of a prose that is as masterly as it is absolutely stunning. I dare anyone to read this book and not fall in love with this author’s words in a matter of minutes.
“I don’t have an affliction. I am perfectly capable of regulating my desires. But Constance?”
“Don’t call them unnatural until you try them.”