Desert Isle Keeper Review

A Most Unconventional Match

Julia Justiss
2008, European Historical Romance (Regency England)
Harl Historical #905, $5.99, 288 pages, Amazon ASIN 0373295057
Part of a series

Grade: A-
Sensuality: Warm

I don't how I have missed Julia Justiss's previous novels, but it is an oversight I will have to correct soon. A Most Unconventional Match was an excellent introduction to her work - maybe too good. The hero is simply wonderful, the heroine's growth is visible and the plot is believable.

Hal is an unusual hero, with a noticeable flaw: an embarrassing stutter controlled by a stilted speech pattern. This impediment led to his being teased and tormented as a child and strained his relationship with his beautiful and fashionable mother, who wanted a fashionable, socially adept son. Instead, she has a large, astute, and tongue-tied businessman and she has not been silent about her disappointment in him. As a consequence, he feels awkward around all good-looking women, tending to become mute in their presence, and avoids them whenever possible.

When Hal was picked on as a child, his best friend Nicky (hero of The Wedding Gamble) stood up for him, so he feels obligated to look after Nicky's recently widowed (and distressingly lovely) sister-in-law when his friend is out of the country. Hal's memory of Elizabeth's beauty makes him reluctant to take on the task but his duty to his friend prevails and his offer of aid arrives at an opportune time.

Elizabeth Lowery's household is in disarray; the servants want their pay and a disreputable bill collector has made nasty threats. Her husband always looked after the finances and his cousin, who has taken ill, handled the household, leaving her with little to do but paint. Now she must manage everything and feels ill-equipped to deal with the problems. Hal's offer to look over the finances and take care of the bill collector comes as a welcome relief. Hal also befriends her son, David, a lonely child who longs for his father, much as Hal did at a similar age. His understanding of the child and his wish to make thing right for him allows Hal to speak more frankly and frequently with Elizabeth.

Elizabeth tentatively begins to take control of her life. She makes mistakes, (one of which caused me to call her an idiot for a little while), but continues to grow more confident and self-aware. Her painting is more than just a hobby, it is her vocation. Hal recognizes that she is very talented and encourages the pursuit of her gift. The romance between them blossoms slowly. His shyness, self-doubts, and personal prejudices against attractive women hinder his pursuit. As for Elizabeth, she feels guilt for an attraction to another man so soon after her husband's death and also needs to be sure that she feels more than gratitude for Hal's helping her and her son. At the same time, another man, a friend of her husband's who has disreputable plans for her, offers quite different advice. As a result of her confusion, she mistrusts her own judgment.

The plot is grounded in the real world and the secondary characters are believable - even the "bad guy," who is just a dishonorable cad rather than a true villain. In one or two cases, I thought the author took Hal's abbreviated speech pattern to the extreme - an article here and there would not have been amiss. It could be irritating and made me somewhat sympathetic toward Hal's mother, which is not a feeling I wanted.

I have always had a soft spot for the outsider, so I instantly fell for the inarticulate Hal Waterman. He is a real gentleman - kind, thoughtful, protective, and encouraging. If it weren't for his shyness, insecurities and speech impediment, he would be too good to be true. I liked A Most Unconventional Match and Hal so much that I fear the heroes of other Justiss novels will not measure up, but I am willing to give them try.

-- Carolyn Esau

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