As a little child, Lillian Walford was poisoned by a distraught servant. She barely survived the attack, and her vocal cords were seared by the poison, leaving her all but mute. Her father, following the generally accepted theories at the time which said that mutes were demon-possessed, left her to languish in silence. It wasn't until his death and the death of her oldest brother, that her second brother, Aaron, who'd left home as a youth, returned. Aaron loved and doted on Lily like she was his own child, getting her the best help money could buy, but even still she has great difficulty speaking. Hating the strained sound of her own voice, she generally chooses not to talk, and she has accepted that her disability has made her unfit to be the wife of any man. Before settling down to a life of solitude though, Lily longs for just one season in London to see what it's like.
Anthony Harbreas, the Earl of Greydon, is shocked and appalled when Aaron Walford tries to blackmail him. Aaron has bought up all of Anthony's debts and is threatening to foreclose on his family's estate if Anthony doesn't agree to act as Lily's escort for her season in London. Anthony already has an agreement with another young lady whom he plans to marry, but Aaron leaves him little choice in the matter. Resigned to his fate, Anthony attends the first ball of the season, expecting a homely chit, but what he finds is a creature of ethereal beauty. When he discovers her affliction, he's shocked but not troubled by it, for Lily quickly charms him with her unique sign language, which unlike others, he has little trouble deciphering. Soon Anthony finds himself defending her honor at every turn and falling for the lovely Lily, but little does he know that Aaron has engineered a kidnapping which will compromise Lily and force Anthony to marry her. By this time, Anthony is hopelessly in love with Lily, but if she ever discovers the plot behind their hasty nuptials, she may never forgive him or her brother again.
Beguiled has been on my TBR list for a very long time. I'm quite glad I finally picked it up, because it turned out to be a great read. It's a sweet story of a young woman in Regency England who is all but mute. She's given up on ever marrying and having a normal life, but she still longs for just one season in London to experience what the city has to offer before settling into the rest of her life alone. She just didn't count on her older brother interfering or a handsome earl falling in love with her. Things did get a bit convoluted at times, making me wish that the characters were being a little more honest and forthright. The lack of this led to a lot of misunderstandings, an element which I typically don't care for, but I think I was able to mostly forgive because the story is deeply emotional and I understood why the characters weren't being more candid. Even though they might have saved themselves a lot of grief in the long-run, their hearts were always in the right place in the moment.
Lily is a heroine who is both sweet and spunky. After being poisoned by a distraught servant when she was very young, she suffered damaged vocal cords which make it extremely difficult for her to speak. She hates the sound of her own voice and generally chooses not to use it, leaving most to mistakenly assume that she's mute and sometimes deaf as well. She's proficient in sign language and also writes notes to communicate. Because of her affliction, Lily was largely ignored and many even believed her to be demon-possessed and amoral (apparently common misperceptions in that era about deaf and mute people). Luckily for her, her rebel older brother rather unexpectedly came into the title and became her guardian. He has always treated her like a precious jewel and got her the best help and teachers money could buy. Despite this, Lily feels invisible and knows that she'll not make a fit wife for any man, but she wants to experience a London season just once. Little does she know though that her doting brother has chosen a man he thinks will make a perfect match for her and has blackmailed him into showing her about town with the intention of also engineering circumstances to force a marriage between them. Of course, having a man dance attendance upon her, especially one as handsome as Anthony, makes her feel special in a way she never has. The only thing about Lily that could have been better is if she'd believed in Anthony's love for her a little sooner than the final pages of the book. If I had a man doing the things for me that he was doing for her, I'd have had a hard time not feeling his love for me, but I suppose given Lily's background and her lack of self-esteem, as well as the fact that Anthony was keeping a lot of secrets in an attempt to protect her, it made sense that she might have doubts, especially when she discovered the truth.
Anthony is a kind and honorable gentleman. With Lily's brother blackmailing him into courting her, it would have been easy for him to treat her badly or even use her to get revenge, but instead, he fell in love with her almost instantly. He's immediately taken with her ethereal beauty, and it doesn't matter to him in the least that she can't speak. In fact, the first time she actually speaks his name, he thinks her voice is beautiful. He also gets extremely angry with her brother for not telling him about her disability before hand, not because he was embarrassed to be seen with her, but because in his surprise, he very nearly humiliated her. Anthony's protectiveness of Lily started in that very moment and only grew each time he was around her. He just couldn't bear to see anyone cause her any sort of emotional pain and he almost hates himself for having to do it on occasion by keeping the truth of how their relationship started from her. I love how patient Anthony is while trying to decipher Lily's unique brand of sign language. In fact, he's utterly charmed right from the start by her animation while she's talking with her hands. Best of all, I adored that he saved every little note she wrote him and sometimes takes them out to look at them, remembering each moment with complete clarity. A deep and abiding love for Lily snuck up on Anthony when he least expected it. Despite their inauspicious beginning, she stole his heart until he couldn't imagine life without her.
In addition to Anthony and Lily's romance, we get three other secondary romances. Lily's brother, Aaron, has a reputation as a devil, which is evidenced in his high-handed approach to finding Lily a husband. I never doubted, however, that his heart was in the right place. He's been in love with Margaret, his brother's widow, ever since he came home to take over the title, but he's a great hulking man who's scarred inside and out. As a second son, he left home young and lived a rough life as a pirate until duty called. As such, he doesn't think she could ever love someone like him and that she deserves far better. He gets several of his own POV scenes as their romance develops. Lily's cousin, Isabel, and Anthony's best friend, Matthew, share a love/hate relationship that's constantly on-again, off-again. In the background their antics were pretty amusing, but if they'd been more in the foreground, they probably would have driven me batty with their sheer stubbornness. Last but not least, Lily's former tutor, Charles, and Frances, the woman Anthony probably would have married if Lily hadn't come along, make a match made in heaven too. So readers get four romances for the price of one, although the latter two were only seen through the eyes of the main hero and heroine.
Overall, Beguiled was a deeply emotional and romantic read that I very much enjoyed. If things had been a tad less convoluted, if Anthony and Aaron had been a little more forthcoming about their well-meaning but less than honest actions, and if Lily had had a little more faith in Anthony's love for her, it would have been a perfect read. As is, I still found it quite well-written and engaging. This was the first of Susan Spencer Paul's books I've read, but after such a pleasant reading experience, I'll definitely be checking out her backlist.
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