Five ++++ stars!
I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of romance novels that have brought me to tears. To that list I must add Reforming Lord Ragsdale.
John Staples, Marquess of Ragsdale, is an unrepentant rake. Not the handsome, charming, amiable kind of rake frequently found in romance novels. He's a drunkard who neglects his duties (although he is nice to his mother). He’s too lazy to hire a valet, or to replace the secretary he fired for stealing. He’s even too indolent to rid himself of his stupid mistress, whom he doesn't even like. His behavior is not like that of other romance heroes either. In one early scene, we find him waking up drunk, fully clothed, and filthy from his own vomit. It’s just another typical morning. Later, he visits his mistress and "attempting exercise far beyond his capacity," he leaves embarrassed and sulky.
He was disfigured by the loss of an eye while fighting in Ireland, which is also where he witnessed a mob murdering his father. He's wracked with guilt because he was unable to save him, and he hates the Irish with a passionate vengeance. When his American cousins, Robert and Sally Claridge, arrive for a visit, he immediately dislikes Sally’s indentured Irish servant Emma Costello, although he finds himself intrigued to learn that she has knowledge of Greek mythology and Shakespeare. When cousin Robert tries to put up Emma’s indenture as stakes in a card game, however, even Lord Ragsdale is horrified at the inhumanity of it. He rescues Emma by offering his two excellent horses in her place. Suddenly, he owns Emma’s indenture, and she pledges to repay him the two thousand pounds that the horses cost.
I said earlier that Lord Ragsdale was unrepentant, but in fact there is a part of him that knows he’s wasting his life. He wants to be better, but his indolence is too powerful. One night, in a drunken haze, he begs Emma to reform him, and she immediately sees her chance. She will reform this worthless man, and in so doing earn her release.
It turns out that Emma is an educated, talented, and ruthlessly strong woman whose life was ruined in the battle between England and Irish rebels. She dislikes the English no less than Lord Ragsdale abhors the Irish. Between them, however, a reluctant friendship develops, as she sets about organizing his finances, getting rid of the mistress, and stopping the out of control drinking. Emma encourages Lord Ragsdale to find a wife, and indeed he becomes the ideal fiancé for Miss Clarissa Partridge, a perfect little society chit of the sort he always expected to marry.
Eventually, Emma comes to trust Lord Ragsdale enough to share her past with him, and he goes out of his way to help her find out the fate of her lost family. Their friendship slowly turns to love, but they both know, without discussing it, that there is no future for them together. As the story enters its final pages, Lord Ragsdale is set to marry Clarissa, and Emma is leaving England, and the reader despairs of a happy ending. But fear not . . . .
I cannot recommend this book highly enough. The plot is engaging, with plenty of humor as well as angst; the language sparkles. There's no sex -- just a couple of kisses -- but there's something better: real, unselfish love between two people who never expected to find it.