Sabrina Jeffries’s newest romance novel is A LADY NEVER SURRENDERS, the fifth and final volume in the “Hellions of Halstead Hall” series. (The fourth story in the “Hellions” series, HOW TO WOO A RELUCTANT LADY, was reviewed here.) These novels, while not technically “Regencies,” have many of the same elements — including house parties and high fashion — but a great deal more heart than most.
The plot for all five “Hellions” stories is roughly the same: Grandmother Hetty wants all five of the Sharpe children to marry, otherwise she’ll cut them out of her will. As she’s quite wealthy due to the dint of her own efforts (she and her husband successfully ran a brewery; she’s kept it going since her husband’s passing), this is not an idle threat. But Hetty made this threat for a good reason — she hates seeing all five Sharpe children believe they’re not worth anything merely because their parents died young, and in scandalous circumstances — which means her heart is in the right place. All the Sharpe children know this, but they also deeply resent being forced to marry at Hetty’s whim.
It’s because of the Sharpe’s parents deaths being due to “scandalous circumstances” that Jackson Pinter, a Bow Street Runner, has come to know the Sharpes. Oliver, the eldest Sharpe, has asked him to investigate the circumstances of the death of his parents; it was said at the time that it was a murder-suicide, but Oliver doesn’t believe it and neither do any of his siblings. The youngest of the lot, Celia, especially doesn’t believe it, and has grown close enough to Jackson to ask his help in evaluating her three most-promising suitors (as she does have the proverbial Sword of Damocles hanging over her head due to her grandmother’s ultimatum).
But Jackson covets Celia for himself, something Hetty really doesn’t like; she’s afraid that Jackson is a fortune hunter, and almost immediately becomes a strong impediment to Celia and Jackson’s happiness. Hetty doesn’t seem to realize that there is a very strong, very physical connection between Jackson and Celia, mostly because Celia is a chaste, all-but-untouched maiden of twenty-four at the start of this novel, and partly because Celia and Jackson try to conceal it due to Hetty’s past interference with the other four Sharpe siblings.
As Jackson gets closer and closer to solving the murder mystery (something I won’t reveal), he also gets closer to Celia. The two have so much passion that it’s surprising that Hetty doesn’t see it; sparks seem to fly off them whenever they’re present in the same room, which other characters (including Hetty’s love interest, an elderly retired General) keep pointing out to Hetty’s annoyance.
Here’s a snippet from page 128 to give you an idea just how hot things are, even at the beginning of Jackson and Celia’s physical relationship:
“Now see here,” (Jackson) said, grabbing (Celia’s) shoulders. “I didn’t kiss you ‘properly’ today because I was afraid if I did I might not stop.”
That seemed to draw her up short. “Wh-what?”
Sweet God, he shouldn’t have said that, but he couldn’t let her go on thinking that she was some sort of pariah around men. “I knew that if I got this close and put my mouth on yours . . . . ”
But now he was this close. And she was staring up at him with that mix of bewilderment and hurt pride, and he couldn’t help himself. Not anymore.
That, my friends, is really good writing. It sets the scene; it explains what’s going on, and it shows more than it tells, which is a really neat trick when it comes to romance writing. (Or any writing at all.)
But good writing wouldn’t be enough, not without good characters to go along with them. And in Jackson Pinter, Bow Street Runner and possible future magistrate (think: policeman and future judge) and Celia Sharpe, we have two winning characters who love each other first in spite of their cultural differences, then learn to delight in their differences — which echoes the way a real relationship tends to go if you’re truly in love. (Not to mention the minor characters, including Jackson’s tart-tongued Aunt Ada — excellently drawn, all.)
From top to bottom, Ms. Jeffries wrote another very good romance; it’s a fun, fast read that’s also realistic and humane. There’s great romance, a good story, a long-unsolved murder mystery to resolve, and excellent characterization. Add charm, wit, and sensuality — really, how can anyone who likes English historical romances dislike A LADY NEVER SURRENDERS? Because this novel has it all, and in spades.
— reviewed by Barb