This is my first novel by Julia Justiss. I read her novella in The Officer's Bride but was not particulary impressed. Looking at other comments about her work, it would appear that she started off not pleasing the reviewers but, fortunately,is growing with each additional work. Well, this one was terrific! It is a very evocative portrayal of a man and woman who, through circumstances beyond their control, knowingly and willingly enter into an illicit relationship which is fraught with the possibility of scandal. This creates a true frisson to their mutual passion which is shown in scene after scene to be deep, true and moving.
Emily Spencer eloped with her first husband and had a son. Both of them were disowned by their families but she was happy with him, following the drum during the Peninsular campaign. After his death, Emily returns to England and, to avoid her husband's family, she does not use his name and sets herself up as a designer and maker of hats. This makes her beyond the pale and a social outcast.
Until she is threatened with extortion by her landlord her life is as she wishes, her son safe and being privately educated by a priest. However, when her world is shaken by threats, she is rescued by the son of a customer, Evan Mansfield, the Earl of Cheverley. In order to "repay" him, she offers the only currency available to her - her body. He accepts, for he is terribly attracted to her, and they embark on a secret affair which becomes a "marriage blanc".
Unfortunately, a deathbed promise to his best friend means that Cheverley must marry his friend's sister, Andrea, and so the affair must end although, with reluctance but with helpless attraction, they continue to meet. Eventually, Cheverley goes abroad on government espionage business and eventually returns, injured and ill. Emily returns to nurse him and is discovered by her family, being taken into the family home, protected by the new head of the family, her husband's middle brother and one of her close friends from her army days.
Eventually Emily and Evan are reconciled although their path is not smooth. Both are full of self-doubts and both have been hurt by their pasts. However, their deep and abiding love help them to overcome the odds and their passion is finally satisfied.
This book is very well done; the plot is carefully executed, the descriptions of the ton, clothes, etc, are well done. The secondary characters are also good. I particularly liked Emily's brother and sister in law and Andrea. If you like adult characters with grown up emotions, behaving in a manner in context with the times in which the author places them, then you will enjoy this book. I look forward to trying some of the author's other work.