Backlist Binge: Julia Justiss

As promised, the highs and lows of Harlequin Historical author Julia Justiss, presented in chronological order (minus the anthologies). Cover images link to Goodreads.

In summary: Justiss does widows, courtesans and angsty heroes really, really well. Her debutantes and rakes, however, are generally just wallpaper.

A word of warning: You can’t have Hal Waterman. He’s MINE.

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The Wedding Gamble (1999)

The Wedding Gamble by Julia Justiss

“Marriage to the
marquess was a risk!”

The happy couple….

Sarah Wellingford is the eldest sister of a family impoverished by their late father’s gambling. Nicholas Stanhope, Marquess of Englemere, is engaged to Sarah’s wild-child best friend.

The set-up….

After Englemere’s fiancee throws the ring at him one too many times, Sarah steps in to smooth things over. Her calm demeanor and family sob story impress him so much that he offers a marriage of convenience to help her save her family’s estate.

The conflicts….

The conflict alluded to in the title is Sarah’s understandable reluctance to marry a man who recouped his family’s fortune at the gaming tables. But the real drama arises later in the story when Sarah’s Long-Lost Love reappears, and the Evil Baron who attempted to blackmail her into marriage stages revenge.

The romance….

The marriage of convenience trope is done really, really well in the first third of the book, and the last third has some very strong scenes involving the Lost Love and the Evil Baron. But the middle drags with too many forced Big Misunderstandings in the early days of their marriage.

The recommendation….

Despite the pacing problems, this is a memorable and well-written Regency, and it’s a must-read as a starting point for Justiss’ backlist.

Grade: B

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A Scandalous Proposal (2000)

A Scandalous Proposal by Julia JustissThe happy couple….

Emily Spencer is a struggling soldier’s widow trying to make a life as a London milliner. Evan Mansfield is the slightly rakish but honorable Earl of Cheverley.

The set-up

The earl is stunned stupid by Emily’s beauty when he accompanies his mother to the shop, but he soon comes to her rescue when she’s accosted by ruffian attempting extortion. After some angstifying, she decides to show him just how thankful she is.

The conflicts….

Evan is quietly jealous of Emily’s war-hero late husband, but that’s nothing compared to the Secret Son she’s hiding from her Evil Father-In-Law.

The romance….

The initial chemistry between Emily and Evan makes their affair seem inevitable, but Justiss gives equal focus on the relationship-building that turns their insta-lust into an emotional, messy love.

The recommendation….

The only thing that keeps this from being an A grade is the fairy-tale-ish resolution, in which our shopkeeper heroine is revealed to be Of Noble Birth and is Restored to Her Proper Place in Society – a trope that always seems like a cop-out to suddenly achieve the equality they need to get married.

Grade: B+

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The Proper Wife (2001)

The Proper Wife by Julia JustissSeries: The Wellingfords, Book 2

The happy couple….

Clarissa Beaumont is the wild-child ex-fiancee of the Marquess of Englemere, hero of the first book in the series. Colonel St. John (aka Sinjin) Sandiford is the Long-Lost Love of Lady Sarah, heroine of the first book in the series.

The set-up….

When Sinjin returns from war, his first objective is to find a wife with the same serene personality as his first love. Instead, he finds himself fighting his overwhelming attraction to rowdy Lady Clarissa.

The conflicts….

Clarissa’s recklessness puts Sinjin’s protective instincts into overdrive, and she chafes at his constant reminders of her lack of propriety. A rather unexpected bit of melodrama involving a jilted suitor pops up towards the end of the book.

The romance….

A true enemies-to-lovers relationship, with a lot of steamy mental lusting and behind-the-garden-hedges smooching.

The recommendation….

Clarissa comes *thisclose* to being TSTL by accepting a wager in the beginning of the book – but KEEP READING. Justiss allows her to evolve from a hoyden into worthy heroine.

Grade: B

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My Lady’s Trust (2002)

My Lady's Trust by Julia JustissSeries: The Spymaster, Book 1

The happy couple….

Laura Martin is a local healer who lives a solitary life to keep her Secret Past a secret. Hugh “Beau” Bradsleigh, Earl of Beaulieu, is a sometime-spy known as “The Puzzlebreaker” for his skills with mathematical proofs and traitor-hunting.

The set-up….

When his younger brother is accidentally shot while hunting with friends, the earl is immediately intrigued by the mysterious nurse who refuses to answer his questions.

The conflicts….

Laura has a truly compelling reason for her disguise and deceptions, but Beau’s need to solve her problems leads her into greater danger.

The romance….

Beau slowly earns Laura’s trust (hence the title), and when they finally get to the good stuff, the imminent Black Moment makes it even sweeter and angstier.

The recommendation….

Although the supposedly brilliant earl has a MAJOR fuck-up moment, he grovels appropriately and redeems himself heroically – and Laura is a truly memorable heroine.

Grade: B+

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My Lady’s Pleasure (2002)

My Lady's Pleasure by Julia JustissSeries: The Spymaster, Book 2

The happy couple….

Valeria Arnold is a soldier’s widow struggling to keep her late husband’s small estate running while fending off her neighbor’s ambitious mother. Teagan Fitzwilliams is a half-Irish gambler who’s been disowned by his aristocratic family.

The set-up….

Although she’s a widow, Valeria is a virgin – until Teagan shows up on her property while escaping a raunchy party at a nearby hunting box. They’re unexpectedly reunited at a ball in London where, thanks to her late husband’s cranky grandmother, Valeria is making her very belated come-out.

The conflicts….

They both want more than friendship, but she must respect her dying patron’s wishes and he believes himself to be unworthy. A quiet but determined alternate suitor appears at opportune moments to make our unhappy couple rethink their lusty thoughts.

The romance….

The virginal widowed heroine seduces the reluctant rakish hero. And the sexy times are indeed very pleasurable. Need I say more?

The recommendation….

I originally gave this a B, but after re-reading I realized how unique and complex these characters are, and how skillfully Justiss re-invents common Regency tropes.

Grade: A-

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My Lady’s Honor (2002)

My Lady's HonorSeries: The Spymaster, Book 3

FULL DISCLOSURE: I did not actually re-read this one because I’m still pissed off from reading it the first time two years ago.

The happy couple….

Newly-orphaned Gwennor Southford needs a proper marriage to prevent her younger brother from being sent to an asylum. Gilen de Mowbry, Viscount St. Abrams, is a self-righteous, whiny WANKER.

The set-up….

As they flee from their “odious cousin,” Gwennor and her brother find temporary safety with a local Romany clan. Gilen sees her dancing, decides she’s a Gypsy Slut, attempts to shame her into being his mistress, and then accuses her of being a thief and a con artist.

The conflicts….

An irrational, stupid, and ENDLESS Big Misunderstanding from start to finish. Because the hero is a self-righteous, whiny FUCKWAD.

The romance….

It’s hard to call this a romance because there’s NOTHING romantic about a hero who’s a self-righteous, whiny ASSHOLE.

The recommendation….

If the words wanker, fuckwad and asshole didn’t clue you in, I didn’t like this book. AT ALL.

For a more coherent description of this anti-romance, the Publisher’s Weekly review sums up the horror without quite as much NSFW language.

Grade: F

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Wicked Wager (2003)

Wicked WagerThe happy couple….

Jenna Montague Fairchild is the widow and daughter of war heroes who has followed the drum all her life.  Lord Anthony Nelthorpe is a repentant rake, suffering from a painful war injury and determined to distance himself from his infamously debauched father.

The set-up….

The night before Jenna’s marriage to her late husband, Tony lured her to an isolated spot to attempt a seduction – but he wasn’t expecting the knife in her boot. When they meet again in London, Tony attempts to pull her out of her grief and depression by wagering that she can make him respectable again.

The conflicts….

She’s still grieving for her husband and father, and she doesn’t trust him, for good reason. He must hide the extent of his father’s alcoholism. Oh – and all the murder attempts.

The romance….

While Tony’s transformation and redemption is believable, it was difficult to view him as a hero because of the off-page “forced seduction.”

The recommendation….

This was an unexpected and unusual premise for a historical romance, but when the suspense bits devolved into a Kidnapping Melodrama, I lost faith a little. Luckily, a lovely – and very romantic – ending raised the overall score.

Grade: B

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The Untamed Heiress (2006)

The Untamed HeiressThe happy couple….

Helena Lambarth is a 21-year-old waif who has been a virtual prisoner in her father’s house for nearly 10 years. Adam Darnell has recently inherited his father’s title and his ruinous gambling debts.

The set-up….

When Helena’s father dies, she finally escapes her captivity and travels to London to live with her missing mother’s distant cousin Lady Darnell – Adam’s stepmother.

The conflicts….

The heroine’s Extreme Makeover from malnourished ugly duckling into Regency swan turns Adam’s head and unleashes his fiancee’s vicious jealousy.

The romance….

It’s there, but it’s primarily repetitive mental lusting followed by self-shaming until the last few chapters.

The recommendation….

The opening was brilliant – but Helena’s transformation was nearly nauseating, especially when it showcased her perfect recall of the literature, music and horsemanship she mastered at AGE TEN.

Grade: C-

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Rogue’s Lady (2007)

Rogue's LadyThe happy couple….

Allegra Antinori is the orphaned daughter of an aristocratic English mother and an Italian musician father. William Tavener is an impoverished rake who has inherited a run-down estate.

The set-up….

Will is on a bride hunt for an heiress, but he can’t keep his eyes off Allegra – despite her “dubious lineage and humble dowry.”

The conflicts….

The Evil Step-Mother (or step-distant-aunt-in-law or something like that) puts the moves on the hero, while the heroine insists on pining after her stodgy cousin.

The romance….

The chemistry is there, but the relationship-building is just a series of encounters at balls, musicales and carriage rides in Hyde Park.

The recommendation….

A predictable and disappointing Cinderella story – complete with an “Oh, wait, never mind! She’s really a duchess!” cop-out ending.

Grade: C-

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A Most Unconventional Match (2007)

A Most Unconventional MatchSeries: The Wellingfords,  Book 3

The happy couple….

Elizabeth Wellingford Lowery is a sheltered young widow overwhelmed by the sudden loss of her protective older husband. Hal Waterman is an aristocrat, but he’s also a financier and entrepreneur – and he’s physically ginormous with a speech impediment.

The set-up….

Hal comes to Elizabeth’s rescue when she’s accosted by a conniving debt collector, and he overcomes his shyness enough to volunteer his expertise in putting her estate to rights.

The conflicts….

Hal’s ambitious mama is determined to marry off her embarrassing lunk of a son. Elizabeth is still grieving and struggling with her young son, her late husband’s slimy best friend is trying to make her his mistress, and she’s a talented artist with no outlet for her work.

The romance….

Ohhhhh, the romance. When Hal learns Elizabeth is a painter and arranges a private viewing at the Royal Academy exhibition…. *~*SWOON*~* And when Elizabeth finally decides to seduce Hal and asks him to pose in a toga…. OMG *~*SWOON*~* <thud>

The recommendation….

I love this book sooooooo much. It’s on my DIK list.

Grade: A

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From Waif to Gentleman’s Wife (2009)

From Waif to Gentleman's WifeSeries: The Wellingfords, Book 4

The happy couple….

Joanna Merrill is a young soldier’s widow (are you sensing a theme here?) unfairly dismissed from a governess position. Sir Edward (Ned) Greaves is a gentleman farmer who’s taken on the management of a neglected estate as a favor for a friend.

The set-up….

When cast-out governess Joanna arrives starving and penniless at the estate where her brother is supposedly working, she learns he’s been missing for months.

The conflicts….

In addition to restoring the tenant farms that Joanna’s brother left to ruin, Sir Edward must also find the instigators of local Luddite uprisings. While disguising himself as plain ol’ untitled Ned.

The romance….

In amongst the political unrest, there’s some good chemistry – but because all the conflict is external, neither Joanna nor Edward grow much as characters, and the relationship-building suffers.

The recommendation….

I gave it a B+ the first time I read it, but it doesn’t hold up as well on re-read.

Grade: B-

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The Smuggler and the Society Bride (2010)

The Smuggler and the Society BrideFULL DISCLOSURE: I did not actually re-read this one because I remember some significant eye-rolling the first time around. And not just over the dopey title. Or the dopey cover.

The happy couple….

Lady Honoria Carlow is a disgraced debutante living in exile in Cornwall with her equally scandalous aunt. Capt. Gabriel Hawksworth is an Irishman doing temporary duty as a smuggler as a favor for a friend.

The set-up….

Honoria stumbles across Gabe’s gang of free-traders in action, and he’s forced to draw her close to shut her up.

The conflicts….

The usual “clueless maiden vs manly man” nonsense.

The romance….

All I remember is thinking “what in the HELL does he see in her???”

The recommendation….

This is the only other Justiss book that I recommend AVOIDING.

Grade: D+

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Society’s Most Disreputable Gentleman (2011)

Society's Most Disreputable GentlemanSeries: The Wellingfords, Book 5

The happy couple….

Amanda Neville is a baron’s daughter about to make her belated debut in London. Greville Anders is the brother of From Waif to Gentleman’s Wife heroine Joanna – the man who royally fucked up his one shot at being an estate manager.

The set-up….

Amanda is looking forward to her debut at age 25 after spending years caring for her family through several tragedies. When her father agrees to play host to an injured veteran at the request of a marquess, she’s expecting a decorated officer – not a half-dead common sailor.

The conflicts….

Amanda’s main source of angst is her obnoxious teenage cousin. On the other hand, Greville is all angst, all the time, and Justiss makes good work of it. Instead of hanging on to his bitterness about being press-ganged into the navy, Greville wises up and attempts to restore his honor.

The romance….

While the chemistry is strong, the road to happiness is disappointingly repetitive and predictable.

The recommendation….

Not the best of the series, but worth reading for a great hero redemption story.

Grade: B-

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The Courtesan (2012)

The Courtesan by Julia Justiss

The happy couple….

Lady Belle is a former courtesan rejoicing in her hard-won freedom after her vile protector dies. Capt. Jack Carrington is a newly-returned war hero who wants nothing more than to return to his mother and sister.

The set-up….

As he’s unpacking his bags in London, Jack’s friends drag him off to view a fencing master’s latest protégé – who just happens to be Lady Belle. The rake-filled crowd of spectators challenges Jack to a match with Lady Belle, and she winds up nearly killing him when the cork tip comes off her foil.

The conflicts….

Jack is fully conscious of his mother’s status as an earl’s daughter, and knows he must avoid scandal during his sister’s come-out. Lady Belle has the angst overload this time, what with her disgraceful past and her penchant for protecting waifs from evil brothel owners.

The romance….

Ohhhh, the romance. Watching Jack learn to admire Lady Belle and earn her trust is ever so swoon-worthy. And Lady Belle is such a deliciously complex heroine.

The recommendation….

This book is nearly perfect until the end, when Lady Belle is miraculously Restored to Her Proper Place in Society. A single anecdote in the first chapter makes this scenario wildly unbelievable.

Grade: B

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