4 stars... a solid, lovely and precious book by Carla Kelly where romance is slow burn; where you can't but end up loving the characters. Then again, that's why I read Ms. Kelly's books. Sometimes they just make me grin like a lunatic, and I end up feeling so happy for the couples involved! :D
Reforming Lord Ragsdale is one of Ms. Kelly's earlier publications. I had it in my TBR for a long time. It was shorter than some of her other books, and a clean romance. But the story was engaging, as were the characters. If you haven't read the story, you wouldn't know how easily two people with enough flaws and suspicion about one-another, can fall in love. It was not a straight up enemies-to-lovers themed story. However, both John Staples, Lord Ragsdale and Emma Costello, lived poles apart in everything and would've remained single for the rest of their lives, rather than considering a match between each-other.
That was how it was in the beginning...
But as fate would have it, the lazy and richer than Croesus, Lord Ragsdale was living a dissolute life of a bored man-about-town, who had nothing better to do than gamble, drink and occasionally diddle his expensive mistress... well, sometimes not even that. (some called John rake, I didn't think he was a "rake" per say but that's just my opinion of him) John had the same routine every day, for years and recently, he had come to realize that he had no notion of what to do with his life, which was a mess. His secretary just robbed him, got caught and now awaiting transportation to Australia, while his estates and tenants suffer the brunt of severe mismanagement. Hell no one even answers to his correspondence, his table overflowing with them! John's widowed mother wanted him to change his ways, marry and settle down. Open up the nursery for the next generations of Staples children. However, John had no interest... in anything to be precise. As things were, Lord Ragsdale was urgently in need of reformation, and he needed help. Pronto!
And as luck would have it, Emma, an Irish servant to John's currently visiting American cousins, had just arrived at the shores of England, first time in 5 yrs. She had no love, or anything remotely called liking, for the English. And why would she? She lost her whole family, thanks to them, in a horrible incident they even weren't even a part of! Emma at least she knew her mother and elder brother were already dead. Her father and the younger brothers missing. We get to learn of that horrible day and what happened later in the story. It alludes to how it ruined her life forever, and the guilt that she was drowning in because she somehow deemed it was her fault to begin with.
Emma somehow managed to get in a America-bound ship and become an indentured servant. Now that the family she worked for was visiting England, Emma thought it was her chance to find out the fates of her father and her brothers. When she stepped out of that ship, Emma hardly thought her luck would change, let alone her life, so drastically, because of one lazy, good-for-nothing, English lord. Doesn't matter however attractive he was. But then, fate played it's part and after some debacle with one of the spendthrift cousins, Emma finds herself indentured to John Staples instead. He had to buy her papers out to save her from being sold by that immature dumba$$.
This changed the course of Emma's life so drastically that she didn't know what to do, or how to repay Lord Ragsdale. However, he himself solves that problem one night, drunk as a skunk (his favorite pastime off late), when he asks Emma to 'reform him' before passing out. That gave Emma an idea-- seemingly impossible but not entirely unachievable. She will reform the rascal Lord Ragsdale so well that he'd soon be a gentleman to envy, married and settled down! She'd make it happen, or die trying!! Maybe then, she'd finally have her indenture papers back, and be free to pursue her own goal. If luck prevails, she may even find her missing relatives and join them in Australia.
When Emma begins working as John's secretary (the man needed one as urgently as his reformation!) she begins to get to know him better. It was inevitable as they spend many hours together. John was a military man, fought in the war which left him half-blind. That too had a sad and tragic tale. His father died in that war at the hands of the Irish rebels, with whom he was extremely close to. And it was the same day he also lost one of his eyes. He also had guilt, of not being able to do anything to save his father as he was dragged down, then brutally slaughtered in front of him. John was too drowning in guilt and sadness, and this was his only way of coping with that guilt, not to mention, the obvious PTSD. It's been a long time, but no one knew what to do with him. How to help him.
But Emma understood, even if she didn't like him much for being an Englishman. She was feeling an urgent need to help him. Soon the dynamics of their relationship began changing too. It wasn't love or lust, but pure affection. It was more than obvious that John liked Emma, no matter his extreme dislike of the Irish. He saw her potentials, her brilliance in everything she did. He liked her so-called "plain" looks, her red hair and freckles. He admired her, which soon grew into adoration, though he tried his best to hide it knowing nothing good can come of showing too much.
On the other hand, Emma knew instinctively that John was a good man, though it took her some times to begin trusting him. But reading what she'd suffered, I couldn't blame her at all. Trust, once broken, is the hardest to regain. Maybe never. But in this case, the scenario was tad different. What happened to her family wasn't directly John's fault. Neither it was Emma's that John's father was dead. So it was expected that as they came closer, an ardent fondness would develop between them. John's mother certainly approved of Emma, despite everything. She had a genuine fondness for her too.
John was more of a happy-go-lucky guy (when he was not in one of his dark moods), all charming and witty. When he talked, you couldn't help but smile and laugh with him. I really enjoyed Emma and John's banters. And every time, when he did something of import and would eagerly describe it to Emma, who'd go teasing him with a "such exertion!", I couldn't help but laugh. Theirs was an easy relationship, though Emma kept her secrets within herself for a long time... until John, who always wanted to know the cause of the shadows lurking behind her eyes, and help, found out out himself. At his silent pleading, Emma couldn't help but finally pour out her misery. Her past, and why she was in England to begin with. Finally she could see she had a friend here who could help her cause more than anyone. Finally she could share her burdens with someone, she suddenly realized, not only she'd come to trust but maybe even love. Only she knew that the later was a bad idea. John was already engaged to a diamond of the first water, a part of his ongoing "reformation".
But what Emma didn't know that John had loved her for a while now, but thinking his feelings wouldn't be reciprocated, never voiced them out loud. He thought going with the reformation plan was the wisest course. But he tried to show her in other ways. Emma took those as his kindness, affection..... but love? She couldn't even imagine that the fickle Lord Ragsdale was capable of love! Oh how things have changed for Lord Lazy-Habits. :p
The ending was, as usual, sigh-worthy. This was another light and heart-warming reads from Carla Kelly. Absolutely hilarious at times and I recommend it. Her stories are well-written, and characters never fail to touch my heart. To make me feel. Some days, that's what I need in a book.