Lady of Scandal by Tina Gabrielle
Victoria Ashton is not at all pleased when she discovers that her brother has been borrowing money from Blake Mallorey, the newly minted Earl of Ravenspear, to gamble. Ten years ago their families were embroiled in quite the scandal and Blake's father committed suicide and he and his family ended up in the poorhouse. Sure enough Blake is out to get revenge as he has bought up her father's debts and comes calling at the Ashton house with a proposition: either his bankers collect the money now (sending the entire family to the poorhouse) or they can have a one year reprieve if Victoria will become his mistress. Victoria is secretly a trader on the London stock exchange, but she has not collected enough money to pay of her family's debts. Knowing there is no choice she agrees to become Blake's mistress, but he agrees that he will not have sex with her unless she asks for it. He sets out to seduce Victoria, and between his touches and his surprisingly caring attitude towards her she begins to slowly give in, both to Blake and to her own desires.
Unfortunately her father and his business partner have asked her to spy for them and she does so by disclosing one of Blake's secret enterprises. When Blake finds out he is upset, but he is more impressed with the intelligence that enabled her to decipher his complicated business papers. He surprises Victoria once again by purchasing her men's clothing and allowing her to come with him to visit the males only floor of the London Stock Exchange. It is things like this that give Victoria hope that Blake cares for her more than he lets on. He does not take advantage of the town's biggest gossip to spread knowledge about their affair, he reads the morning paper with her and discusses business practices with her, and generally treats her far better than she expected. But as Victoria falls more and more under Blake's spell she worries that he does not feel the same way about her and is hurt that he will not give up his long seated desire for revenge against her own family. When her father offers her a way to discover Blake's true feelings for her Victoria takes it, but when things do not go as planned Victoria is left to worry if she destroyed any chance of Blake caring for her forever.
Blake definitely holds the upper hand in their relationship and I have realized that having one protagonist hold all the power really only works when there is a significant portion of the book told from their point of view. This allows the reader to realize that, despite holding said power, the character is still caring, reasonable, and is falling in love with the other character. I can excuse a bit of bad behavior on the hero's part if we are given reasonable explanations and insights into why he behaved that way. This book had just enough to keep me from feeling that Blake was completely awful, but I really would have appreciated quite a bit more throughout the book. Victoria was definitely a flawed character as twice near the end she falls for her father's lies when it is fairly obviously to the reader that he is up to no good. She is obviously very intelligent as far as business deals go but when it comes to those she cares about she is as flawed as everyone. Her feelings for Blake lead her to make some very misguided decisions and she has a definite weak spot where her father is concerned. No matter how horribly he acts she has tremendous difficulty letting go of the fact that he is her father and this just makes her human.
I would prefer a more nuanced villain than Charles Ashton as he really is quite the horrible man. He betrays his country, his business partner, his friends, and his own family in his quest for money and he is completely one dimensionally awful. The book maintained a very good focus on the development of the relationship, and the development of feelings between the characters, throughout the book. Even as treason and arson and revenge were going on around them Gabrielle kept the core of the book about Victoria and Blake. This was even more of a feat because what was happening around them was interesting and important, and not just thrown in there at the last minute. There was a decent amount of steam throughout the book as these two definitely have the hots for each other. It was well written and very hot and there was just about enough of it. Throughout the book I noticed that characters, although mostly Blake, said things that I felt were things that no one would ever say; such as when he talks about the fiery beauty of an emerald and how he had to possess it. This is a fairly common problem in romance novels, however so I can overlook it.
Rating: I probably would only give this 3 1/2 hearts because I really wanted more from Blake, but I did really like both characters and the relationship between them was very well done so 4 hearts it is.