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The story of the Portmaine ladies began in Ethan's story, where Alice reveals the traumatic experience she and her sister had when they were younger. Alice has coped with the ordeal by leaving -- turning her back on her life of wealth and comfort to strike out on her own, working as a governess. While Alice suffered as witness, Avis's entire life changed when she was violated by her ex-fiance, Lord Collins. In the aftermath, Avis's reputation suffered gravely, and many of their neighbors actually believed that Avis was responsible for what happened to her. The logical next step would be for Avis to leave and start new somewhere else, but Avis bravely stayed behind -- serving as chatelaine of Blessings in the absence of her brothers and sister.
It doesn't make sense for Avis to stay behind, and even her sister, Alice, is puzzled by her decision -- there's nothing left for her in Blessings -- her sister and brothers have all left, she isn't received in society. She was the aggrieved party, but the community around her painted her as a tease, and a jilt.
So why stay? I saw Avis's decision as an act of defiance against society's expectations: society thought she would turn tail and run, but she didn't hide and wither away. Instead, as caretaker, she was actually responsible for the Portmaine estate thriving. Her one champion is Harold, Viscount Landover, her closest neighbor -- a man with his own secrets.
Harold and Avis are similar in some ways: while their siblings are off living their lives, Harold and Avis stayed behind -- while Avis is content to stay in Blessings. Tired of living according to society's dictates and expectations, Harold has decided to take an extended trip to Denmark and has asked his younger brother, and heir, Hadrian, to manage Landover in his place.
"I cannot stay here for another thirty-seven years, so that you can be a martyr to the church, and I can be a martyr to duty. If you're not happy, then you need to fix that. I can't fix it for you, though God knows I would if I could."
- p. 43
It was no hardship for Hadrian to quit his vocation as vicar in order to help his brother realize his dream -- like Avis and Harold, Hadrian had lived his life as all second sons should: between becoming a soldier or a vicar (popular occupations for second sons), he chose to be a vicar. Then, he married a vicar's daughter, because he felt that was what was expected a vicar should do -- and it didn't work out well for Hadrian. Now, he's about to help his brother break one of society's greatest moral taboos.
Hadrian was actually the one who found Avis after the incident, and was with her as she healed. But, like everyone else in Avis's life.
Now Hadrian is back, and it's awkward for him and Avis for two reasons: one, as a vicar, Hadrian is used to spouting platitudes to comfort his flock -- but, Avis isn't an impersonal experience for Hadrian, so he doesn't quite know what to say to Avis. Two, Hadrian has always been attracted to Avis, but he's wary of relationships after his marriage turned sour.
"I'm sorry," Avis said when they reached the bottom of the hill. "It will be like this for us, won't it? I'll understand if you want to decline breakfast, and you're welcome to as many pigeons as Harold can stow on his yacht."
They had been doing so well with the platitudes and small talk. Hadrian made a doomed attempt to regain that false, friendly footing. "Be like what?"
"We will try for cordiality and succeed swimmingly until something slips out amiss, and then all will be awkwardness until somebody tosses out another social nicety. While I cannot expect you to forget, I'm so very --"
- p. 15
Hadrian is an interesting character: as a (former) vicar, everyone expects him to always know the right thing to do, but, as evidenced by his bad marriage, vicars aren't infallible, and Hadrian's story and relationship with his brother, Harold, and Avis shows the very human side of this vocation. Ashton Fenwick, Avis's steward, likes to tease Hadrian about his former vocation. (Ashton has a playful and flirtatious relationship with Avis. I honestly found it a bit weird that Avis would allow an employee to step beyond the acceptable bounds of a employee-employer relationship, but, again -- these are characters who have had enough of playing by society's rules. What is interesting is Ashton and his devotion to Avis. For a while, I thought there was some romantic tension between him and Avis's very devoted companion -- but, apparently, I was wrong.
There are three obstacles in the story:
1. The most obvious one is that there are reports that Lord Collins is back in England, and seems to be intent on making mischief again.
2. Despite the incident happening so long ago, there is someone who is fuelling the gossip about Avis, making her a pariah in society.
3. Despite the mutual attraction, and Hadrian's repeated proposal, Avis refused his proposal of marriage. She doesn't want to taint Hadrian's reputation by association.
On top of that, Hadrian is still acclimatizing himself to his new role as his brother's steward (and future lord of the manor).
The one thing that was missing from the novel is a clear chemistry between our hero and heroine -- for the most part, I felt that their relationship is grounded on the attraction that existed between them years ago. Yes, love and respect exists between the two, but there's also a vague sense that Hadrian just wants to do one thing right in his life, and that is Avis: I think he really just wants to protect Avis. In that Hadrian lives up to being the Lord of Hope. Even though Avis never shows despair, there is an air of capitulation around her -- as though to say, "you win" -- but Hadrian gives Avis a reason to continue her fight.
Hadrian is the last book (Book 12) in Grace Burrowes's The Lonely Lords series. To find out more about Grace Burrowes and her awesome books, click below: