Florence Fairleigh is a simple country vicar's daughter who has been left orphaned and is quickly running out of money to live on. She decides that she wishes to marry a kind man who will give her financial security, but with prospects in her home town slim, she takes what little money she has left and travels to London to seek help from her father's solicitor, Mr. Mowbry. All Florence hopes for is that a kind society matron might sponsor her for one season, so that she can find a suitable husband. As it turns out, Mr. Mowbry is also a solicitor to Edward Burbrooke, the Earl of Greystowe. Ever since their parents deaths when they were just teenagers, Edward has played the role of a father-figure to his younger brother Freddie. Even before the loss of their parents, Edward had felt the need to protect Freddie from their father's cold-hearted nature. Now, Freddie has been caught in a very compromising position with another man, and in order to quell the gossip-mongers, Edward feels the best course of action is to find Freddie a wife. He also believes that a pretty and charming woman might be just what Freddie needs to tempt him away from his wayward lifestyle.
Aware of the Burbrooke's precarious situation, Mr. Mowbry immediately brings Florence to Edward's attention. After covertly observing Florence, Edward agrees that she may be just right for Freddie, and makes arrangements for their Aunt Hypatia to sponsor her for the season, under the guise of her being a distant cousin. As a supposed relation, Freddie has more leeway in courting Florence that any other gentleman would, so it doesn't take long for Freddie and Florence to develop a deep and comfortable friendship and for Freddie to propose. The only problem is that the more time Edward spends in Florence's presence the more he can't stop thinking about her, and eventually, it becomes all but impossible for him to keep his hands off his brother's betrothed. For Florence, the attraction is mutual, and after a few stolen moments of passion with Edward, Freddie by comparison seems like a cold fish. As gossip continues to spread about Freddie's sexual preferences, Edward's protective nature toward his brother leads him to push Florence away, believing that marriage to Florence is the only thing that may save Freddie's reputation. Edward's actions only serve to confuse Florence though, who had thought that something special was developing between them, and leaves her wondering if Edward really has inherited his father's cold heart. There is also the matter of the Burbrooke's original manipulation, and when the truth comes out it isn't clear whether Florence will ever be able to forgive any of them, even though they have all come to care for her very deeply, each in their own way, but Edward most of all.
Upon finishing Beyond Innocence, I realized that I was left with very mixed feeling about it. While the story had some aspects that I enjoyed, there were also many parts that left me feeling disappointed or even frustrated. Beyond Innocence was a very character-driven story in which virtually all of the conflict was of an internal nature. There were two secondary characters who I thought might become villains, but they were very mild and never developed any teeth, a definite case of their bark being worse than their bite. In fact, their actual effect on the plot was ultimately, minimal at best. This is not my favorite type of story, but it at least generally held my interest, though was very predictable in nature. There were some emotional romantic moments, but in my opinion, that feeling was not maintained consistently throughout the narrative. The love scenes were very hot and steamy, but just seemed to lack that little extra something that I couldn't quite put my finger on. I think this may have been due to the tug-of-war that was occurring in Edward and Florence's relationship. One moment they were putting every ounce of control into fighting their feelings for one another, and the next they were giving in to their most passionate desires. I just couldn't seem to become fully invested in their interactions until they were able to completely surrender to one another and their feelings which didn't occur until about ¾ of the way through the book. I also felt that they threw themselves into their passionate encounters a bit too quickly. At least they had know each other for a while, before becoming intimate, but when they did, it seemed like an all-consuming, unquenchable fire right from the start. I simply have a preference for slower-building sexual tension that leads to a more emotion-laden, passionate climax.
Edward and Florence were generally likable characters, but not always fully relatable for me. Florence was a sweet, simple country girl, which was the one thing I could relate to, but I felt that she didn't always seem to stay true to that characterization. She was gentle and compassionate to nearly everyone around her except Edward, who she frequently thought of as a cold-hearted ogre, even after sharing several intimate experiences with him. I never quite understood this line of thinking, because I felt I had a pretty good understanding of Edward right from the start. To me, he was a reserved and sometimes aloof man whose behavior was only compounded by his attempts to hide his feelings for Florence, but he never really did anything which I found to be thoroughly rude or out of line which should have given her this idea. I guess I prefer a heroine who is a little more intuitive towards her hero's feelings and looks deeper than what lies on the surface. Also, Florence was an extremely innocent vicar's daughter who had no real idea of what desire and pleasure entailed, yet she readily and even eagerly participated in sexual encounters that were out of the ordinary. In fact, she even seemed to have an instinctive knowledge of exactly what to do, even though she had lived the life of a sheltered virgin, something that I felt stretched the bounds of credibility. She also accepted Freddie's revelation that he was gay without so much as batting an eyelash, and was the only one who was able to fully and immediately accept it. Not even Edward, who was a very loving brother, or their aunt, who held Freddie in great affection as well, could claim as much, another thing that I found odd for a young woman of her position in the Victorian era.
As I mentioned, I did feel like I had a pretty good grasp on Edward's character, but the one thing I never fully understood was his compelling need to, and confessed enjoyment of, protecting his younger brother. While I could certainly admire the deep bond that Edward and Freddie shared with one another, I felt like Edward's actions went beyond the bounds of brotherly love and affection and into the realm of extremely dysfunctional and obsessive behavior. Edward seemed fully prepared to hand over the only woman he had ever loved to Freddie, even though it was nearly ripping his heart out to do so, and I got the feeling that if Freddie had not taken matters into his own hands to stop this from happening, that Edward would have continued down this destructive path. I believe that perhaps I was supposed to find this kind of sacrificial devotion to be endearing, and while the desire to protect his brother may have been admirable on some level, I felt that he never really took Freddie or Florence's feelings into account. Edward's adamant claims that Florence was Freddie's last hope of regaining respectability just didn't ring true to me, when it seems that any other young woman would have done just as well. I came to the conclusion that I was simply never able to fully respect Edward, because it seemed to me that he didn't really make any conscious decisions in his relationships with Freddie and Florence, instead just being a passive onlooker who was trying to have it both ways. When Edward finally did let go, I felt that it was more because of Freddie simply taking control of his own life than any deliberate choice that Edward made himself. In the end, I think I liked and respected Freddie more than either of the two main characters, because he was a good man who stayed true to his character and didn't try to hide behind false pretenses. In all honesty, I thought he was a rather charming scene-stealer.
While it may seem that I have a lot of criticisms of this story, I can tell that Emma Holly has talent as a writer. Even though I did some eye-rolling on occasion and, in some ways, this novel became the closest thing to a wall-banger I have ever read, I was never truly bored with it. The story just simply evoked certain strong emotions from me, which I suppose, even though they were rather negative in nature at times, could strangely still be taken as the mark of a good author. Perhaps Ms. Holly's story-telling style simply isn't quite to my taste, but since this is the first novel I've read by her, it would be rather difficult for me say until I've read more of her work. Beyond Innocence is the first volume in the Beyond Duet, which introduces readers to Merry Vance, a young woman who shares a tentative friendship with Florence and has a strong attraction to Edward. She becomes the heroine of the sequel, Beyond Seduction. Even though Ms. Holly did not wow me on the first try, I will likely finish this series and will reserve further opinion on her writing until that time.
Note: Beyond Innocence reads much like a traditional historical romance, but in my opinion the sexual content and explicit language (both of which some may find offensive) rather pushed the boundaries of what most readers would consider traditional, giving it a mild erotic feel. Even though certain aspects of the sexual content were not entirely to my taste, I would not personally characterize it as offensive either, except for one scene involving voyeurism in the first chapter which was bothersome to me. Sensitive readers should also be aware that there is one passionate kiss shared by two male characters which, again, may offend some.
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