To the people of the village near his Welsh country estate, Nicholas Davies is known as the Demon Earl. Born of the union between an aristocratic rogue and a Gypsy, he has a wildness in his heart. After his father's death when he was a child, his mother turned him over to his grandfather, an exacting man who was then forced to acknowledge that his sole heir was of mixed blood. The man never treated Nicholas with anything but disdain, and the only person who showed him any kindness was the Methodist minister his grandfather hired to tutor him. Later as a young man, a mysterious, tragic event occurred which led to the death of both his grandfather and his wife on the same night, but no one knows exactly what happened even though many rumors regarding Nicholas and that night abound among the locals. For the four years since, he's been out of the country and has only just returned. The old estate holds no fond memories for him, and he's seriously entertaining the idea of trying to sell it when the daughter of his former tutor comes to call, demanding that he make changes and invest in the local economy. He has no real interest in the problems of others, but the young woman intrigues him in a way no woman has for a very long time. Desiring her as his mistress, he makes a scandalous proposition in exchange for doing as she asks.
Clare Morgan is the schoolmistress in the local village. As the daughter of a preacher, she's known for her propriety but underneath her prim exterior beats a passionate heart. She cares for the residents of the village and isn't afraid to go toe-to-toe with the Demon Earl to get him to do something about the appalling lack of safety in the coal mine on his land and to get him to use his money for the greater good. However, she didn't expect his scandalous counter-proposal that she come live with him at the mansion for three months and allow him to kiss her once every day in exchange for his help. Feeling that the lives of the miners and the well-being of the villagers are more important than her own reputation, Clare impulsively accepts his bargain. She believes that if she handles it properly, she may be able to salvage her job when the three months are up and that the kisses won't adversely affect her. But she didn't count on Nicholas' allure getting under her skin from the moment he touches her, nor that two so very different people might find common ground. She'll have her work cut out for her resisting Nicholas. Not to mention, danger lurks in unexpected places that could lead to their demise before she ever has to worry about losing her heart to him.
Thunder and Roses - along with several other Mary Jo Putney books - has been on my TBR pile for quite some time. I'm glad I finally got around to reading it. I had a feeling I would like Ms. Putney's work, and this book didn't disappoint. Her writing style reminds me somewhat of Mary Balogh's and the book itself reminded me of one of Ms. Balogh's books, Longing. Both it and Thunder and Roses are set primarily in Wales, and both contain plot elements relating to mining and music, pursuits that I gather are wholly representative of that area of Great Britain. Also both books have aristocratic heroes paired with commoner heroines and a strong emphasis on historical details. However, the two books are hardly carbon copies of one another. In Thunder and Roses, the hero is part Gypsy in addition to his aristocratic Welsh heritage. There's also a touch of intrigue surrounding scandalous events that happened four years earlier which led to both his grandfather's and his wife's deaths, as well as the heroine making an equally scandalous bargain with him to gain his cooperation in investing in the local village economy and working to make conditions safer for the miners. All the elements came together to create a very pleasant reading experience that, while perhaps not quite perfect, was still enjoyable.
When he was just a boy, Nicholas's mother took him to his Gorgio (non-Gypsy) aristocratic grandfather, and he believes she sold him to the man for a mere one hundred guineas. His grandfather was not happy about his only grandson and heir being half-Gypsy, so he treated Nicholas with nothing but disdain. The only person who was genuinely nice to him was the village Methodist preacher, whom his grandfather hired to tutor him until he was ready for Eton. There Nicholas met his three best friends in the world, and the four of them together earned themselves the nickname The Fallen Angels. Once grown, he eventually married, but the union was fraught with difficulties until both his grandfather and his wife died on the same night. Village gossips believe that Nicholas had an affair with his step-grandmother (a very young woman), which broke his grandfather's heart and sent his wife fleeing the estate, only to die in a carriage accident. After that, Nicholas left the country for four years and has only recently returned to his family's estate, which he is thinking of trying to sell because of all the bad memories it holds. All that changes when the feisty young local schoolmistress, who also happens to be the preacher's now-grown daughter, comes calling, demanding that he do something about the mine safety and the flagging economy of the village. Despite her ordinariness and pedestrian background, she stirs his interest in a way that nothing else has in a long time. Nicholas decides he'd like to seduce her into becoming his mistress, so he strikes a devil's bargain with her: he'll do all that she asks if she stays at the mansion with him for three months and allows him to kiss her once each day.
It seems that Thunder and Roses reminded me of more than one book, as Nicholas's character was very reminiscent of the hero of another historical romance I recently read. Both characters begin the story as dissolute, selfish rakes, who have every intention of making the heroine his mistress. However, the hero of that other story went down in flames for me when he forced himself on the heroine. This is where Mary Jo Putney earned my eternal gratitude and major kudos with Nicholas. Yes, he begins the story with no real interest in actually helping people. His bargain with Clare is little more than a game at first, but he grows and changes as he sees first-hand how difficult it is for the miners and the other people of the village. He also treats Clare with the utmost respect, always allowing her to say when their kisses are over and never once forcing her to do anything that she didn't want to. In so doing, he gradually earns her trust and respect in return, as well as her desire for more intimacies. Being with Clare ultimately makes Nicholas a better man. Except for those few selfish moments, I really liked him. His Romany background makes him unique, as the first hero with Gypsy heritage I can recall reading. He additionally has a talent for music and a live-in-the-moment attitude. He's a loyal friend to his fellow Fallen Angels and he bears respect for some of the village residents whom he remembers from childhood. While he perhaps didn't stand out quite enough to rank highly on my favorite heroes list, he nonetheless was a good one.
After the death of her father and mother, Clare lives alone and works as the local schoolmistress. She takes her responsibilities to her fellow villagers as well as her Christian duty to help them very seriously. As the teacher, she knows of all their hardships, so she goes to the Demon Earl in hopes of persuading him to help. Of course, he won't lift a finger unless she agrees to his proposition, which will likely ruin her in the eyes of the villagers, who would never allow her near their children again. But knowing how desperately they need Nicholas's help, she impetuously agrees, hoping that maybe she can salvage her reputation by being honest with a few of her closest Methodist friends and painting the situation as her acting as his housekeeper to everyone else. Of course, things don't exactly go as planned, earning her censure from some of her fellow churchgoers, but she gradually makes progress in getting Nicholas to see the error of his ways and spurs him to get involved in making changes that benefit everyone. Clare is a feisty, take-charge kind of heroine who still has a softer, more compassionate side. She grows to care for Nicholas very quickly as she sees the man underneath the rakish exterior and the scandalous past. She never pressures him for details of what actually happened that night and he doesn't give them until the very end, but instead she trusts that the man she's come to know and love would never do something so terrible. As a person of faith, one of the things that I appreciated most about Clare's character is her crisis of faith, how despite going through the motions every Sunday and having a preacher father, she doesn't feel particularly close to God until Nicholas teaches her how to open herself up and truly love another human being.
With Thunder and Roses being a seven-book series, we're introduced to a few secondary characters who play key roles in future books, Nicholas's three best friends in particular. Lucien (Dancing on the Wind) is a smooth and perceptive spy-master, while Rafe (Petals in the Storm) is a duke who seems almost as bored with life, if not more so, than Nicholas. I'll be interested to see what type of woman these men need to keep them in line. Then there's Michael, who's harboring a huge grudge against Nicholas that seems to be rooted in that scandalous night. I had my suspicions as to why but for the most part I was somewhat surprised by how this part of the story played out. Michael is a former soldier who appears to be suffering from PTSD and can be rather harsh, but he has a good side, too. Again, I'll be very interested in reading more about him in Shattered Rainbows. Then there are some memorable characters from among the villagers, most notably Clare's friends, Owen and Marged, and their large brood of children. They're still in love after several years of marriage and Owen is a truly good man who takes great care of everyone.
Overall Thunder and Roses was a very good introduction to Mary Jo Putney's work. The only reason I marked off a half-star is because the story is a little slow in places and I found my mind wandering just a bit, but it didn't usually last long before the next exciting or intriguing this was happening. I also give the author kudos for her attention to historical details. When I read her author's note at the end of the book, I was impressed with all the little things she included, which of course added to the authenticity of time and place. I'd also be remiss if I didn't mention that Nicholas's penguins absolutely enchanted me. They were definitely the first penguins I've read in a romance novel, so they completely took me by surprise.:-) I very much enjoyed the book and look forward to continuing the series soon to see all the Fallen Angels get their HEAs.
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