After the death of his cousin, Sebastian Verlaine, unexpectedly finds himself the new Viscount D'Aubrey. He's a dissolute, cynical rake who much prefers the indulgences offered by the city rather than the provincial seat that is now his. He also surprisingly finds himself acting as a local magistrate, judging the petty crimes of his tenants and neighbors. His first time serving in that capacity, a young woman is brought before him, accused of little more than being poor and not having a place to live. Intrigued by her submissive nature and bored with his latest mistress, Sebastian offers her the job of his housekeeper to prevent her from being returned to jail. But far from being an altruistic offer, he has every intention of seducing her. He just didn't expect for her to get under his skin in a way that changes his whole outlook on life.
Rachel Wade was wrongly accused of her cruel husband's murder and spent ten years in prison for the crime. During that time, she lost her parents and her brother moved to Canada, so upon her release, she has no one to whom she can turn for help. What little money she had was stolen, and unable to find employment because of her criminal record, she finds herself once again at the mercy of the justice system. When Sebastian offers her the job of his housekeeper, Rachel has little choice but to accept, even though she strongly suspects that he wants far more from her than someone to take care of his household affairs. As Sebastian pushes her, she gradually finds her voice and begins to make a new place for herself in the world, as well as discovering a love for her employer. But when she once again faces false charges, will she be able to open herself to everything Sebastian has to offer in order to save herself?
The first two books I read by Patrica Gaffney were both keepers for me and earned her a spot on my favorite authors list. One of those books was the first in her Wyckerley Trilogy, so I went into reading To Have and to Hold very much looking forward to it and with high expectations. Unfortunately those expectations were dashed when the hero behaved like a selfish jerk for the first third of the book and then proceeds to rape the heroine (something I'll address in a moment) and then allows his so-called friends to further degrade her. Granted he sees the light and makes a drastic change after that, but by then the damage was already done in my mind. I simply couldn't like him no matter how nice he became. I think I also lost some respect for the heroine, too, for allowing him to treat her that way. Therefore, I was never really able to connect with either of them on the deep level that I wanted to. So, ultimately this book was a so-so read for me. The writing itself was strong, but the plot and characters failed to capture my heart like so many other romances have or even Ms. Gaffney's other books have.
I'm very well aware of the so-called "forced seduction" that was so prevalent in the bodice-ripper romances of the 1970s and 1980s. This is something I'm not particularly interested in reading, so I've tried to educate myself on the authors who sometimes wrote in this style and/or the specific books that contain this theme, so that I can avoid them. I don't ever recall seeing Patricia Gaffney being mentioned as one of them or To Have and to Hold on any "forced seduction" lists either. Having first been published in 1995, it's a little late for the bodice-ripper era, although I know that there were occasional books published with this theme beyond that time frame and some still are being published today. However, I can't even call what happened in this book "forced seduction." It was outright rape, plain and simple. The term "forced seduction" implies that the heroine says no with her mouth, but her body betrays her and she enjoys in anyway. In this book, the heroine plainly says no with both her mouth and her body language, and she doesn't enjoy it at all. The hero is a complete ass throughout it all, never showing any remorse or second thoughts about what he's doing. I don't care that he wasn't being violent like her husband had been. He was still exerting power over her and admits that he gets some kind of perverse pleasure out of pushing her, so in my estimation, he wasn't any better than her husband at that point in the story. It all made me rather sick to my stomach and I wasn't sure if I was going to be able to continue, which has rarely ever happened to me before. Luckily the author tried to redeem him later on, but even with that, I couldn't fully forgive him for his horrific behavior early in the story. As far as I'm concerned, you can put lipstick on a pig, but it's still a pig.
As you can tell Sebastian got on my bad side and never entirely recovered. During the first third of the book, I could hardly stand him. The story opens with him breaking things off with his latest mistress and dispatching her back to London. That alone didn't turn me off, because I've read other romances where the hero has a mistress when the story opens. But from there, he goes to act as a magistrate where he hears Rachel's case. At first I thought he was going to be the proverbial knight in shining armor, helping her out when she has nowhere else to go. He does, but not for any altruistic reasons. It's because he's decided from the moment he sees her that he wants to seduce her and make her his next mistress. But before he can do that, he installs her as his housekeeper to keep her out of jail.
Throughout this whole part of the story, I tried to give Sebastian a chance and like him even though he comes off with an oily vibe. But when he clearly states that he expects sexual favors as part of Rachel keeping her job and exploits his power as her employer to have sex with her, it made me nauseous. That was only made all the more egregious by the fact that the first time he raped her, she'd just had a nightmare about her sadistic husband's abuse. From there it only gets worse when he hosts some friends from London, whom he allows to make sport of her, never stepping in to defend her at all until one of them is about to rape her, too. Then Sebastian finally has an epiphany about how selfish he's been and puts a stop to it. I'm all for characters growing and changing, but I felt like the author could have expressed Sebastian's selfish nature without resorting to him raping Rachel and allowing his friends to so callously degrade her. Not to mention, he turns around pretty quickly to become a more desirable hero at that point, almost too quickly to be entirely believable. However, without this turnaround, I wouldn't have been able to stomach the rest of the story. If he'd behaved like the Sebastian of the last two-thirds or so during the whole book or hadn't been quite such a disgusting person during the first third, I probably would have liked him.
As the story opened, I was very sympathetic toward Rachel. She was wrongly convicted of murdering her cruel, sadistic husband who forced her to perform twisted sex acts and spent ten years in prison for it. During that time, she lost all her family, so when she's released she has nowhere to go and no one she can depend on. As a result, she finds herself arrested again when she can't find employment or a place to live. When Sebastian makes his offer to employ her as his housekeeper, she has no other option besides going back to prison or the workhouse. In this respect, I felt the author showed quite well how few options many women had during that era, and this is only underscored by the fact that Sebastian forces her to "service" him in order to keep said job.
As a result of her time in prison, Rachel is a very meek, submissive woman (another aspect of her characterization which I though was done quite well) who rarely shows any emotion until Sebastian's prodding and tormenting gets a rise out of her. However, I felt like she let him off the hook far too easily for his abuse and for allowing his friends to abuse her as well. Yes, he started treating her better, but I felt like she should have made him grovel for her forgiveness. Instead, she falls into a comfortable relationship as his mistress, as well as his housekeeper. After what her husband did to her, her willingness to even have sex with Sebastian, much less slightly kinky sex, didn't ring true to me. Then there's her moment toward the end of the story where she gets upset with him for initially scoffing at the idea of marrying her. At that point, I was like, "Really? He can torment you, rape you, and allow his friends to do the same and you give him a pass, but this is the straw that broke the camel's back?" When faced with going to jail again late in the story, she also brushes aside Sebastian's help, which didn't make a lot of sense either. Nor did her fighting the idea of marrying him when he finally asks. So, I started the book thinking I would connect with Rachel, but ultimately I had a hard time accepting her convoluted way of thinking.
There were a few other things about the story that bothered me. First, when it was revealed early on that Rachel hadn't killed her husband, I thought that we might get a bit of a murder mystery sub-plot, but that didn't really happen. I suspected early in the story who the real culprit was and their motive even though this isn't revealed until the very end. Although why this person blamed Rachel for everything, I never really understood. Then there are the love scenes which for the most part didn't do much for me. Rachel doesn't even experience her first orgasm until the fifth time, they have sex, which was very unsatisfying to me. The first two times were rape as far as I'm concerned. By the third time, Sebastian has had his epiphany, but he makes a promise not to touch her if she lies down beside him, then breaks his word anyway. The fourth time, if it weren't for the man I knew Sebastian had been, I would have very much enjoyed his bathing/massage seduction, but then Rachel won't allow him to give her pleasure even though she's close. It's supposedly somehow rooted in control issues, but the reasoning eluded me. It's not until he engages in a bit of light bondage that she finally lets go, which I didn't quite understand either given what her husband had done to her. For a book that was published in the mid-1990s, I was rather surprised by the dark erotic content. Basically all of Sebastian's family and friends are hedonists, and Rachel's dead husband was a twisted pervert.
After my copious criticisms, readers may be wondering why I was even able to give To Have and to Hold three stars, and that's mainly because of the author's writing style. Patricia Gaffney is clearly a talented writer with a lyrical, almost poetic, style that flows beautifully. She also knows how to paint vivid word pictures that can really give the reader a sense of time and place. I love the little village of Wyckerley even though we don't get to see as much of it in this book. I also loved seeing Christy and Anne (To Love and to Cherish) again. They're such a lovely couple and I enjoyed the update on where they are, as well as seeing their friendship extended, in particular, to Rachel. There was also a brief mention of a side romance between two supporting characters that was sweet, and I wouldn't have minded seeing a little more of that. As for the main couple, I mostly liked Rachel even though I didn't understand many of her choices, and if first-half Sebastian had been more like second-half Sebastian, I might have liked him, too. So overall, despite it being a tough read with regards to character motivations and certain content issues, it was, from a mechanical standpoint, a solid read because of it's very competent author. I still have one more book in the series to go, and even though this one wasn't my cup of tea, I'll try to not to allow it to color my perceptions moving forward. I've had other favorite authors who've made missteps, so I guess this is Ms. Gaffney's. I'll just be hoping that she didn't write anymore rapist heroes in any of her other books.
Note: This book contains some explicit sexual content, including non-consensual sex, light bondage and a finger at the back door, as well as discussion of much darker things.
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