[Setting: 1824, Richmond and London, England] Wed Him Before You Bed Him is the sixth and final book in "The School for Heiresses" series and I have greatly been looking forward to it - and finally discovering Cousin Michael's identity!! - even though I haven't read all the other books in the series. I was not disappointed and found it absolutely delightful; I would recommend it to people even if they haven't read all - or any - of the other Heiress books (though reading them certainly makes this book more enjoyable since you have the mystery surrounding Cousin Michael building up).
He was NOT who I expected him to be - I was actually convinced that this person wasn't going to end up being the mysterious benefactor. However, although I experienced a few moments of disappointment, the feeling quickly disappeared and in the end I think Jeffries wrote an amazing hero and did a stellar job of recreating the H&H's past while making the flames between them 18 years later (when the story takes place) feel as strong as ever (if not stronger and more substantial) - basically I think her choice of Cousin Michael's alter ego ended up being perfect. She successfully combines two star-crossed lovers with a tumultuous past who are honest and upfront about their feelings, a secret identity hidden through a fourteen-year long correspondence, wonderful chemistry and great romance (many sigh-worthy moments), and a murder mystery for an absolutely delightful end to her Heiress series.
~~NOTE: Don't read further **if you don't want to know** who Cousin Michael is. If you do ... go ahead! (And bear with me, I know I wrote enough for an epic poem here).
~~THE HISTORY (our hero and heroine's past):
Jeffries gives us two chapters in the present day (when the story is set) and then flashes us back to when the H&H fell in love, almost got married, suffered heartbreak due to misunderstanding and *several* horrible twists of fate, and split up. It was very well done and greatly adds to the story - so much of what happens between them is defined by their shared history and getting several chapters of that makes them finally coming together and their romance that much sweeter and more enjoyable to read. So ...
Eighteen years ago, eighteen-year old Charlotte Page (now thirty-six-year old widow and headmistress Mrs. Charlotte Harris) and twenty-year old David Masters (now thirty-seven-year old widower and Viscount Kirkwood) were being pushed into a marriage by their manipulative fathers. At first, they were both dead-set against the match ... however when Charlotte and her parents visit David and his family at their country estate, the two young people find that perhaps their initial aversion was unwarranted. During the week-long visit, they come to know one another very well and slowly fall in love; everything looks to be going along perfectly and they seem to be headed in the direction of matrimonial bliss ...
However, shocker of shockers, everything does not occur as it should (I know, sit down and recover from the surprise I just sprung on you) and circumstances make it so that Charlotte and David part ways, each full of anger and hurt - which over the years turns to feelings of regret and loss - and never to speak to one another again for eighteen years (or so Charlotte thinks, lol). The whole debacle involves mistaken identity (Charlotte thinks she spies David diddling the maid), a letter written in haste and wrongly delivered (fate *would* have to make it so that Charlotte's scathing letter is delivered to a tabloid and not David's house), and severe public humiliation (David endures shame and criticism after he's cast in the role of "bad rakish arrogant peer" by society - the letter didn't have actual names in case it fell into the wrong hands, but people were able to figure out that he was the vilified male being written about). The result is an elopement and failed marriage for Charlotte (her father is so livid she elopes in a desperate attempt to escape him - he's a *horrible* bully) and feelings of anger and a need for revenge on the part of our hero, David.
~~THE STORY (how the reunion-romance unfolds):
Fourteen years ago, David set up the charade of "Cousin Michael" and lured Charlotte away from her teacher post with the promise of being headmistress of her own school ... all to carry out the revenge he felt she so richly deserved for his very public humiliation. He would let her get comfortable, set up an establishment, put down some roots, and then happily pull it all out from under her and leave her to suffer as he has.
But starting with the first letter from her thanking dear "Cousin Michael" for his generosity, David is drawn in and he finds himself embarking on a fourteen-year correspondence with a woman whom he once loved, was determined to ruin, and has now come to respect and treasure as a friend. The moment has come for him to finally reenter Charlotte's life (as himself), for although she hasn't heard from her mysterious benefactor for six months, her school is in danger because not only is a racecourse being planned for the property next door, but little does she know she has problems with her own school's property as well (David won the lease of the land for 15 years, but doesn't actually own it). David lost his wife to suicide six months ago and is now (somewhat) free to pursue the woman who has dominated his thoughts and remained an obsession (he's still in half-mourning).
Charlotte is confused at having to face him again and is extremely suspicious of his explanation and his motives; she finds it hard to believe that (vain and selfish) Sarah, his deceased wife and her former pupil, left a large amount of money to a school that she never seemed to have any fondness for. Charlotte has so many regrets over what happened between her and David all those years ago and still feels guilt over how she wronged him, albeit unknowingly and unintentionally. The attraction between them still burns as brightly as it ever did and Charlotte finds herself embarking on an affair with the man who has always retained a piece of her heart and whom she can't seem to resist.
And so the story goes - David, intensely wooing Charlotte so as to convince her to let him back into her life, all the while trying to hide his other persona of "Cousin Michael," and Charlotte, desperate to hang on to the independence she fought so hard for and the life she put so much work into building, while at the same time unable to deny her loneliness and continued longing for the man she first fell in love with so long ago.
~~MAIN CHARACTERS, Mrs. Charlotte Harris and David Masters, Viscount Kirkwood:
The hero and especially the heroine of this book are older than we usually see, however in this instance it was a nice change. There is so much history between the two - what happened defined the course of both their lives - and I think their maturity only enhanced the book and added depth to their relationship and emotions.
Charlotte is a strong, confident, kind, hard-working, forthright and extremely likable heroine. After having such a horrible father and then being married to a man she did not love who lost all her money and then died in a duel two years into their marriage, she never wants to depend on another man again. She has forged a life for herself and a successful career, teaching young women many of the subjects that often aren't thought necessary - or even desirable - for her gender, and though she at times feels lonely, Charlotte gains satisfaction from her work and the friends she has made.
David is a wonderful hero - intense, determined, kind, intelligent, teasing, passionate, responsible - and just perfect for Charlotte. He has many regrets about what happened so many years ago and has grown up and matured a lot since. Although his father completely ruined the family finances, he did what was necessary to make them successful again, making a marriage of convenience (he needs money, she wants a title) and using the money that comes with his (horrid) wife to make sound business investments and turn around the family fortunes. He feels tremendous guilt over his wife's suicide and he also feels guilty over the "Cousin Michael" deception and why it was first initiated. David longs for Charlotte - though that word isn't strong enough IMO - and is determined to get her back in his life with a single-minded intensity.
The chemistry between David and Charlotte literally leaps off the page, however there is also great depth to their relationship. Reading this book is like reading the story of two star-crossed lovers that you just KNOW are meant to be together, so you read voraciously through without putting the book down in order to get to the end and finally see them get their well-deserved HEA.
I normally don't like books that have misunderstandings and when you have stories where the H&H had a first-love together or an almost-marriage or whatever, the reason that the story is taking place so many years later is always because of some type of misunderstanding. However, this book was such a refreshing change in so many ways and although the story starts off with a big misunderstanding, the characters don't create more of them when they meet again (thank god!). I also appreciated that by the time all this is happening, both Charlotte and David have pretty much learned the truth about the other person's side of the story.
Charlotte and David are always open about their feelings and their past - there are no things left unsaid or secrets (well, the whole Cousin Michael thing, which yes, I'll grant you, is a big deal - but hello, that's what the whole plot is about so it's completely necessary!!). I loved that they were so honest about their regrets regarding how they treated each other; they both say exactly what the reader always thinks in cases like these - if only she had confronted him about what she thought she saw, if only he hadn't let his pride stop him from going to her, etc. Both of them have been hurt and are afraid to love again and trust another person - especially each other - with their hearts, however they are honest about their desire for each other, their affection, their confusion over feelings and emotions and where the relationship might be going, and so on. SUCH a nice change!!!
READ THIS BOOK! I, along with most people from what the polls on Jeffries' website indicate, thought and hoped that the mysterious "Cousin Michael" was Lord Stoneville - and I'm still rooting for him to get his own book, and from suspicious goings-on in this book think he will soon - however I was not at all disappointed with David and think that Jeffries wrote a hero and heroine who were perfect for one another and really could not have been with any other person.
If you want to refresh your memory about (or read for the first time) the letter snippets between Charlotte and Cousin Michael that have appeared at the beginning of all the Heiress book chapters, they are posted on Sabrina Jeffries' website.