Monday, March 5, 2012

REVIEW: The Runaway Countess by Leigh LaValle

The Runaway Countess by Leigh LaValle
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Her heart longs for justice, but her body clamors for sin. 

The Runaway CountessOnce the darling of high society, Mazie Chetwyn knows firsthand how quickly the rich and powerful turn their backs on the less fortunate. Orphaned, penniless and determined to defy their ruthless whims, she joins forces with a local highwayman who steals from the rich to give to the poor. 

Then the pawn broker snitches, and Mazie is captured by the Lord Lieutenant of Nottinghamshire. A man who is far too handsome, far too observant…and surely as corrupt as his father once was. 

Sensible, rule-driven Trent Carthwick, twelfth Earl of Radford, is certain the threat of the gallows will prompt the villagers’ beloved Angel of Kindness to reveal the highwayman’s identity. But his bewitching captive volunteers nothing—except a sultry, bewildering kiss. 

And so the games begin. Trent feints, Mazie parries. He threatens, she pretends nonchalance. He cajoles, she rebuffs. Thwarted at every turn, Trent probes deep into her one vulnerability—her past. There he finds the leverage he needs and a searing truth that challenges all he believes about right and wrong.

The course of true love never did run smooth. Very true, especially when it is made even more complicated when you find yourself falling in love with The Enemy. 'The Runaway Countess' is a stunning debut novel from Ms LaValle; it is thrilling and fraught with tension and intrigue, it is sensual and seductive, and it is sure to captivate your heart. I know that from the first chapter, I was very impressed with the crisp clarity of writing, of how the lush narrative allowed me to immerse myself in Trent and Mazie's world without diffidence.

[ETA] I highly recommend stopping by The Romance Dish blog to read about a very personal and deeply inspiring account of how The Runaway Countess came about. :)


We are immediately aware that the stakes are high; we see and feel the desperation that should overpower a weaker person, and yet loyalty, strength of character and bravery prevail, and we see into the heart of Mazie Chetwyn who has been captured, indeed guilty of the 'mercy' crimes she has committed. She knows firsthand about the oppression and corruption going on around her and has teamed up with the local highwayman, the Midnight Rider, to set things right. Of course, there are two sides to the story, and so we meet Trent Carthwick, twelfth Earl of Radford, the Lord Lieutenant of Nottinghamshire, who is principled and respectable ... a discerning and intelligent man who believes wholeheartedly in the law. The scandal surrounding the Midnight Rider and his accomplice is threatening everything he is; all he has known and worked hard for, and so he must remain in Nottinghamshire to sort it all out, capture the Midnight Rider, and reestablish the honor of his family name. He doesn't remain oblivious to the injustice and damage inflicted upon the locals for long, thanks to Mazie challenging him at every turn. Eventually, the fissures in his otherwise just and stable world emerge, and he is forced to reevaluate his position and actions regarding whom to trust, without losing faith in the system of the law.

I found myself falling for Mazie and Trent, two extraordinary people struggling to do right in this world, in their own way. Infallible they are not, but they adapt and they learn, they choose and they act, never just sitting idly by. I do so appreciate the complex situation they find themselves in, and I can't take for granted the thought process and the dueling emotions regarding the heavy decisions they both must make. Every now and then I found myself needing to pause for a bit to digest their current status or state of mind. What must it be like for Trent, finding himself inevitably drawn to, in love with, a guilty criminal, who is dead set on protecting the person he must apprehend? What then, when he finally gets to know her heart and see beyond her actions, and yet know that 'he could not have it all. He was destined to lose something in the end. ' Duty, honor, and responsibility. Freedom, happiness, and love. What must it be like for Mazie, already faced with threats to her freedom and life, but still loyal and unwavering in her protection of the Midnight Rider? What then, when she discovers for herself that though, yes, he is duty-bound and very much on the side of the law, that he has a very kind heart, that he is willing to change ... that he is also stuck in an impossible situation between the locals and the gentry, and that he is 'just a man. A man with a heart, with tears and worries of his own.' When the time comes that she is able to trust, would she also be able to give up freedom? Love? My heart breaks for them.

One of my favorite things about this book is the undeniable attraction between the two. Try as they might, and as perverse as it is to desire one's enemy, well, there it is, the attraction simmering, sizzling, burning up the pages. Oh my goodness, those scenes are so hot, sensual, and oh so delicious. Their kisses alone would have been the death of me already, but wait till you get to Chapter Sixteen. Whew. My favorite line in the entire book is about their third kiss, in fact.

It was a kiss born of thunderstorms and the wild loneliness of the night. It was hot, fierce, and needy.
Ugh. Perfect!

I love, love Mazie's uncensored thoughts, actually laughed out loud at some of the moments when she is struggling not to feel affected, not to show that she is affected, and then finally admitting, and submitting, to her passion and desire. 'He could do whatever it was his eyes were saying they wanted to do.'

Oh, so refreshing to see a heroine voice her (treacheroussincere) desire for the hero.
He looked up at her from where he bent over the spigot. That devilish lock of hair fell across his forehead and her breath caught. Even after their argument, even after the brittle fear of the morning, she was still attracted to him. It was entirely unfair that he was so handsome.
She wished he weren't so beautiful.
No, she amended. She loved that he was beautiful. She wished he weren't her enemy. That he wasn't always so determined to ruin her life.
I love Trent's intensity, and by intense, I mean, wow. I'm surprised Mazie hasn't yet melted, what with the smoldering gazes, always under his scrutiny and observations and stares. I ... have no words, hehe. Trent could not disguise his attraction to her even if he tried. But more than this, I loved how Trent tried to cope with his new found feelings for her while trying to reconcile it with the reality of who Mazie was. I love the moments where we are shown Trent's kindness, his gentleness, to everyone from the locals, his sister, Mazie. Even when he knew Mazie was not being forthcoming, despite trying to reign in his feelings for Mazie, there is no doubt he's very attuned to her, even without complete comprehension.
It distressed him seeing her so upset. And his distress over her distress distressed him even more. Which made no sense being that she continued to lie to him, even knowing what he had at stake.
She was a devil of a confusing woman.
There is so much to recommend in this gem of a book. One of them  is Cat, Trent's unhappily married sister and Mazie's peer. I love Cat so much, and my heart goes out for her too. (Ms LaValle, we ARE going to learn more about Cat, aren't we? Yes or yes? :D) She's wonderful, I love her character so much. There are two particular conversations she had with Mazie that made me feel that gnawing ache in my heart. The first one happened when Mazie decided to hide from Trent. Two very impressive, undaunted, protective sisters, alone, together; in a large library; their conversation very telling. Cat's candor illuminating on some truths, confessed directly or otherwise. The second one happened towards the end.
“You will run.”
“I don’t know.” She was honest. “Trent knows the truth, understands why the Midnight Rider did what he did. It is his decision what happens next. I am not going to stay and help your brother find my br—my friend. There is nothing left for me here.”
“There is love.”
Mazie shook her head. She took her stance and pulled back on her bowstring. “No matter what happens, we will hurt each other terribly/"
"Does it work, running away?" Cat's voice was marked by concern and frustration. "Is that why Forster has been gone so many years?"
I really am curious to hear more about Cat. Here's to hoping we'll soon find out. :D

I thoroughly enjoyed my reading of this novel. It grips you right from the very start, and doesn't let you want to let go. It was well worth the journey to the end and see how the situations were resolved. By the time I reached the end, I had tears threatening to fall while a goofy grin was pasted on my face. I would definitely recommend 'The Runaway Countess' to everyone. :)

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