I loved Francis Haile, Lord Middlethorpe, in An Arranged Marriage more than any other rogue introduced in the first book of Jo Beverley's Company of Rogues series. Why? It wasn't his 'soulful beauty of a poet', nor his 'exquisite manners', nor his very supportive friendship Nicholas and Eleanor Delaney. I loved his gentle soul and his sensitivity but especially because he truly is a man of honor. In Forbidden, Nicholas teased Francis about being 'Frank by name, frank by nature' and a more honest and honorable man than Francis would be hard to find, which makes what happens to him in Forbidden so heart-wrenching and appalling yet a lightning rod for change in Francis.
In An Arranged Marriage, Francis and Eleanor, Nicholas Delaney's wife, develop a close friendship which both acknowledge, at separate times, might have deepened if Eleanor were not Nicholas's wife and Francis's code of honor were not so indomitable as this conversation between Nicholas and Francis toward the end of An Arranged Marriage shows:
"Forgive me for asking, Francis, but do you love Eleanor?"
Color crept into Lord Middlethorpe fine features. "No, unfortunately. I say that because I think I could have fallen in love with her if the circumstances had been right. She is a very special woman." (...) I met Eleanor as your wife. After you disappeared, and even when we feared you might be dead, she was visibly pregnant with your child. I never saw her as available. I think had she been a widow, after some time it might have developed that way."(300-301, An Arranged Marriage)
By the end of An Arranged Marriage, Francis is beginning to contemplate a courtship and eventual marriage to the candidate his mother has approved, Lady Anne Peckworth, the daughter of the Duke of Arran. In Forbidden, Francis's courtship to Lady Anne has progressed so far that there are 'reasonable expectations' of a betrothal announcement at any time. The Duke approves, Francis likes and respects Lady Anne, and she seems more than fond of Francis. He is resolved to 'marry suitably to provide heirs' even as he admits privately for 'one or two adventures in his life' before settling down. Fate or the gods must have been cackling as Francis wished for an adventure or two because that's exactly what he gets. Alas, poor Francis must not have learned that the gods always punish us by granting our wishes.
His adventure begins simply enough: a mysterious letter interrupting his courtship of Lady Anne from a tutor named Charles Ferncliff and an alleged blackmail attempt on his very proper mother from the gentleman because of some nebulous 'improper behavior.' On his way to 'teach the tutor a lesson', Francis meets 'adventure' head on, walking along a road in Dorset and traveling under the name of Serena Riverton, and his life is changed forever.
Serena Allbright Riverton, sold into marriage at age 15 to Matthew 'Randy' Riverton for 30,000 guineas, used as a sexual slave for eight years by that piece of excrement until his death three months prior, flees her brothers' home, practically penniless, when she discovers they are about to sell her again - either to another repulsive old man or to a brothel; it makes no difference to them. The going price this time is £10,000. She has no money from her late husband's estate (blown through by the Brothers Grimm on horse races, gaming, and prostitutes), no skills to speak of except 'bedwork' as taught to her by 'Yes, my name is Randy for a reason' Riverton and limited employment prospects because of her remarkable beauty. Men look at her full bosom, her red hair, full lips, and slumbrous 'bedroom' eyes and see 'Sex on Two Legs', not a person. Even as Serena hitches a ride on a wool-factor's gig, he gives her 'speculative looks and hints about improved acquaintanceship.' While waiting for a coach to Winchester, a 'mustachioed captain' attempts to proposition her - rubbing her foot with his boot and winking. Serena decides if the choice is marriage to yet another 'big, coarse man, gone fifty and deep in depravity' or being a prostitute, 'she'd be a whore but not in a brothel', she'd be 'the best damn whore in England.' Walking in the near dark, in the icy chill, Serena is contemplating death by a thousand excruciatingly awful ways, when Francis comes tooling along in his curricle and offers her a ride. Did you say 'adventure', Francis? Bwahaha.
Francis and Serena are forced to take shelter from the winter storm. To protect her reputation they pose as man and wife, despite his snap judgment that Serena is no 'lady.' The family of religious zealots who provide shelter for the night and whose primary decor are samplers with biblical quotations like 'The eyes of the Lord are in every place, beholding the evil and the good' or (my personal favorite) 'Thou shalt beat him with the rod, and shalt deliver his soul from hell' only add to Francis's questions about her virtue. Serena, out of options and fearing Francis's abandonment, offers him her only commodity in trade for his kindness and future help: her body, pointing out the added advantage of her barren state:
"I'm sorry if the perfume makes you want a woman," she said softly in the dark. "If you wish, you may mount me."
"What?" Francis could hardly believe what he had heard.
"I am causing your problem," she said rather shakily. "It is only fair that I ease it." (60)
Though Serena does not claim to be a 'sensitive virgin', Francis is. No, really. A virgin in the Company of Rogues.
"Too fastidious to enjoy loose women and too kind to use pure ones, he was a peculiarity amongst his friends, though in fact they all thought he was just very discreet." (56)
Of course he refuses her offer vehemently though parts of him are yelling 'Yes! Yes! Yes!' just as vehemently. Francis's muddled opinion of Serena is based solely on her appearance just as the wool-factor's and the captain's. Worse, he associates her musky perfume with a woman who owned a brothel and almost ruined his friend's, Nicholas Delaney, marriage. She's dangerous to him, lacks modesty and propriety with her low-cut gown, and is too 'bold and damned fishy' to sacrifice the comfort of a bed for sleeping on the floor, though he does hang on to the edge to keep as far away from temptation as possible. During the night, Serena's fears and uncertainty goad her into trying to persuade the sleeping Francis to keep her as his mistress by giving him a 'sample of her wares' since he refused her direct offer. When Francis finally comes to, erm, reality, his refusal has been ignored, and he is no longer a virgin. This is the event which colors each and every interaction between Serena and Francis throughout Forbidden.
Raped. Yes, rape. Francis was raped. Serena's offer of her body had been refused. Yes, I understand her reasons. Yes, I sympathized with Serena's fears, her insecurity, I understood why she has such low opinion of herself. But none of that changes the fact that she took something from him without his permission. No means No, right? Or does it mean 'maybe' when the roles are reversed? Is Francis angry? You bet. Does he have even one reason to trust Serena further than he can toss her? Nope. Not a one. Does he throw her out on her ass so she make her way on her own to whatever village to hide from her brothers? No. No, he doesn't. His innate sense of honor won't allow him to treat Serena as shabbily as she treated him. Instead, he sets her up to live with his Aunt Arabella, a spinster of fiercely independent spirit, until she can figure out a plan.
But three months later, Serena's infertility is proved false (Note: Diagnosis of infertility is always suspect if it originates from the personal physician of "Yes my name is Randy for a reason"), Francis's life is knocked catawampus, and the two are married quicker than you can say Jack Robinson. As much as I hate! hate! hate! the 'rape' scene, the transformative effects on both Serena and Francis make for a compelling book.
Three months has dimmed Francis's anger at Serena, but his renowned sensitivity is nowhere to be found with the news of prospective fatherhood. He feels trapped and, to be honest, slightly frustrated since his reason for returning to Aunt Arabella's house was to ask Serena to be his mistress. Baby has put a period to Francis's erotic daydreams with Serena as his mistress. Discovering the real reason his Aunt Arabella summoned him (and now wants his guts for garters) doesn't sit well, that Aunt believes Serena was taken advantage of, not Francis, is just salt in the wound. It's not surprising he believes Serena to be a 'scheming wanton' but making her swear on the bible that (a) she's pregnant, and (b) that the child is his, not a servant's or married man's, was just a little cruel, totally unlike the sensitive, urbane Francis. Impatient, coolly dismissive, taunting, impersonally courteous, hard-edged, deeply mistrustful, drinking too much, swearing, losing his temper- a very different Francis emerges in Forbidden and was a fascinating sight to behold. I never would have expected gentle Francis to call his wife a 'worthless tart' or threaten to throttle her, nor would I have ever thought Francis would retaliate in kind to his wife when slaps him (who then clocks him over his thick skull with a wooden portfolio).
Aunt Arabella is the initial driving force behind Serena first seeing herself as a worthy person, goading Serena into an admitting no one has the right to dictate her life except herself. It's such a powerful avowal of independence and epiphany for Serena. Three months with Aunt Arabella has proved to Serena she can have a 'normal' life, she can make a respectable life for herself. Gone are the immodest dresses drenched in a 'whore's' perfume, replaced with simple modest styles. People in the village admire and respect her. Serena attends church, visits the poor, and had a tentative plan to find respectable position as a companion.
As Francis's wife, Serena is determined to make reparations for turning his well-ordered life upside down and inside out beginning with dealing so compassionately if awkwardly with Lady Anne, braving society knowing the Allbright/Riverton names are two strikes against her, a source for public humiliation, but facing everyone with spirit and courage, and discovering her beauty can be a powerful tool.
She was sure that in some way her beauty was to blame for her wounded marriage, as it had been to blame for just about all the problems in her life.
It was a cocked gun, however. If she couldn't use it to seize her own happiness, at least she could use it to take Society by storm.
Her own happiness. Her husband's heart.
She caught her breath at that. Was she truly, truly going to aim for the moon?
What else could she do when she loved him? (282)
Sex between these two is awkward and painful. The way Francis's virginity was taken, his belief that Serena was a 'whore' out to snag a rich nobleman (fueled by Nicholas Delaney's experience with Thérèse Bellaire), his conflicted feelings about using Serena's body to slake his lust, his genuine concern for Serena's dislike of lovemaking, his inexperience with 'manly arts', and his desire for her to feel the same desire for him as he does her is like watching a movie with the dialogue lagging behind the movements of the actors' mouths. Everything is out of sync. Sex with her first husband was about thinking, not feeling. Thinking what to do and how to ensure he received pleasure. Serena is not accustomed to tenderness, kisses, being held or cuddled, touched just for the pleasure it will bring her, or feelings during sex. She had been 'well trained' to submit to whatever her husband demanded. Francis wanting more than sexual release is as puzzling to her as she is to him.
Until Francis loses his mind and accuses her of adultery, Serena's name was an fitting adjective for her demeanor: serene. I loved her outrage and anger, and that conniption fit was one of the best I've read. Very cathartic, as well as an anthem of independence signaling to all that those days of controlling Serena are O-V-E-R, baby. To see her stand up for herself and proclaim herself an 'honorable woman', conking Francis over the head with a portfolio and growling at him, smashing a simpering china shepherdess and shepherd boy with pipes, and greeting Francis by tossing a pair of lewd manacles, a candlestick and a vase at his head was priceless. He deserved it for being a lunkhead. Ah, that last scene? Yeah, Francis and Serena are definitely singing from the same page.