Scandal’s Mistress by Bronwyn Stuart was published on August 13, 2012. I received an advanced reader copy from Carina Press.
[Content note: discussion of non-consent in a sexual relationship]
Justin Trentham, third son of the Earl of Billington, is determined to get himself disowned from his cold and unloving family. Despite his numerous affairs with questionable women of the ton, his parents continue to be dismissive of his ploys, but Justin spots the perfect scandal in the form of a beautiful, exotic Italian opera singer…
Carmalina Belluccini refuses to become his mistress, despite being tempted by his charms. But after losing her singing voice, she finds herself destitute. She agrees to be Justin’s mistress for one month, until she has enough money to return to her beloved Italy.
She intends to keep their arrangement strictly business, but after witnessing Justin’s vulnerable side, she finds herself falling more in love than in lust with him. Carmalina is having second thoughts about leaving England…but is their love strong enough to survive the scandal of the season?
I actually started reading this and quickly put it down. I debated heavily whether I would finish it.
The reason was that the first interaction of the main characters, Justin and Carmalina, was creepy. He, the son of an Earl, sneaked into dressing room after one of her performances at the theatre in order to woo her into being his mistress. She is trapped in a small room with a man she barely knows, the people who should have protected her having let him in. They then have one of those classic romance conversations that just always get under my skin: he pushes her to take his gift, she says no repeatedly, he tells her outright that he will not accept “no” from her, she continues to protest, but his persistence ever so slowly breaks down her barriers until she is questioning whether she does in fact want what he is offering. Her consent in this situation is not much of a concern for him and then it doesn’t matter because his non-concern has caused her to change her mind.
It was at this point, still in chapter one, that I put the book down and walked away.
I did eventually come back to it but I could never really get into it.
I found Justin to be the brat he was (supposedly) pretending to be — his outlandish behavior was never grounded in an excuse that made much sense to me (he was taking up with Carmalina, an actress, in order to force his father to cut him off so that Justin “would be free to live beyond the stifling constraints of society”).
On top of that, their unequal power dynamic continues. Carmalina has agreed to be his mistress because, unbeknownst to Justin, she has been thrown out of the theatre as her voice is not what it once was. She literally has no where else to go and so she can’t really say “no” to him. Saying “no” means starving.
As part of their deal, they agreed not to consummate their relationship. Yet, not long into her stay at his home, Justin is angry at Carmalina after suspecting that she was off having sex with another man. Even after she has denied it and told him the truth (that she has grass in her hair because she was playing with children at the park), he is angry and to show his anger and put her in his place:
He crushed his lips to hers, thrust his tongue into her mouth before she had time to react to his intrusion. There was nothing gentle about what he did, the way he slid his hands into her hair, grasped the silky strands so he could pull her head back, so he could taste more of her. He applied a little pressure to display just the merest hint of what he was capable of. He ground himself into her softness so she would know for sure that he wanted her. That he could take her anytime, agreement be damned.
I will never like this kind of scene. Never.
Beyond that major issue that was the subtext of their relationship, there was little to redeem this story for me. Both Justin and Carmalina have their reasons for not wanting to love the other, past hurts that must be overcome in order for them to commit. It is, of course, harder for Justin to get past his baggage than it is for Carmalina, though Justin’s baggage just seems whiny and childish most of the time.
There was simply not enough likability in either character or their relationship to make me, the reader, invest in them or their romance.
I give Scandal’s Mistress 1.5 out of 5 stars.