Unbuttoning Miss Hardwick (Harlequin Historical Series #1093) - Deb Marlowe My review contains spoilers and they're mostly my thoughts as I went with the book...

Honestly, Unbuttoning Miss Hardwick was up at Netgalley for ARC review but I wasn’t remotely interested in requesting it. One, because I don’t usually request from authors I haven’t tried before. Two, I thought it was another of those rakes-unbuttoning-some-spinster theme. Not that I don’t like that theme, but not every author can morph such a common theme into something amazing. But, the reason I’m blabbering on is that I was SO GIGANTICALLY wrong about everything! This book had a slow burn quality; on the outside, you’ll think it’s too slow and Braedon’s activities might annoy you at some point. But, Unbuttoning Miss Hardwick also had some really beautiful and soul searching moments for both the main characters, which makes us, the readers also aware of our inner-selves.

Have you ever been hurt by a loved one… I mean really hurt? After years, do you still think about it? Does it, sometimes, make you feel vulnerable to the other intense emotions? Have you even ever asked yourself about it, that why you feel this way? I can say ‘yes’ to almost all the questions I’ve posed here. So, I think I did understand, even if a little, as to why Braedon was so sensitive about being ‘hurt’ by someone. Men like him can be exasperating but honestly, it’s a reward a woman can reap if she can get underneath his skin. Oh but Chloe was perfect for that role! It was also the fact that I loved DM’s writing a lot.

Chloe had a different childhood than most girls of her age; she spent it mostly alone. After her father died, her mother married her father’s best friend, Mr. Hardwick. Chloe observed an unrequited love from her stepfather’s side, as her mother never really loved him back. Sadly, we don’t have a lot of exploration on Chloe’s childhood but whatever we get from her musings or talks with Braedon. Fortunately, Chloe had a very good and close relationship with her stepfather, who gave her his name. Even at that young age, after knowing poverty for a short time just after her father’s death, Chloe knew she has to keep her stepfather happy in order to have a good life. It wasn’t a tough task for her as her stepfather was a loving man. But he didn’t really understand the ‘real’ Chloe and what she wanted. As the story progresses, we also see that even Chloe doesn’t understand what she really wants in her life since it’s was mostly spent by making others happy. In order to do that, she molded herself into a person as per necessity, and none of them are her ‘real’ self. Chloe’s experiences in the school weren’t happy ones, since no one came to visit or take her away in the holidays. Mr. Hardwick, being a collector of antiquities, would be often out of the country. Chloe’s mother has already died, just a few years after the marriage, leaving him devastated. So, as I said, Chloe was alone and learned to fend for herself. It started in the school, when she was teaching and the headmistress was being a b*tch to her, she molded herself to someone that the woman would approve of. In return, she gets to be safe and can go unnoticed. Then when she was back, she worked closely with her stepfather, who also returned from abroad to work for the ‘Marauding Marquess’ or the Marquess of Marland, Braedon, to take care of his collection of antique war weapons. It’s a task no one better than Mr. Hardwick could do, and so, Chloe learned from the best. Chloe also has some marvelous skills. She’s not only smart and intelligent, she can do amazing sketches. She’s also very industrious and focused on whatever she is doing. In short, no one can get a better assistant than Chloe Hardwick and she proved it over and over again when her stepfather passed away and she started working for Braedon, who had no idea about it since he was abroad at that time. But the question remained, who is the ‘real’ Chloe Harwick?

The day Braedon returns is the day Chloe begins finding some answers. Initially she was scared that the marquess would fire her for being an imposter of sort. And she startles Braedon without a doubt, a scene I totally loved. Braedon was looking for ‘his Hardwick’ when he finds this young woman working where Mr. Hardwick should’ve. Then, when the young woman confessed to be Mr. Hardwick’s stepdaughter, he had no idea what to think. I mean, a woman? Working with his invaluable weapons, the treasures of his life?! Managing the works of his newly built weaponry wing? A woman who wears that weird, box-like dress, with a row of buttons in front of her, as if it works like a shield? A dress that basically gives nothing away about her, not even her glasses and tight bun? OMG, the horror! But, soon, very very soon, Braedon begins to notice Chloe’s industriousness and tries hard not to dwell on what’s inside that dress. They work together on various weapons, Chloe or Hardwick, as Braedon calls her, surprising him at every turn. She never fails him in anything, always very good in whatever it is she’s doing for him. Braedon can’t possibly find a better assistant than his Hardwick... The irony!

In between, some of Braedon’s past comes clear; about his abusive and cruel elder brother or his ignorant father who spoiled his eldest son to the core. Some of the imageries that DM portrays of Connor’s cruelty were very disturbing, starting from his childhood and cruelties towards small animals. And it grew to a monstrous proportion by the time he was a young man. Bummer but I love the name Connor! *pouts* Anyway, this Connor was horrible in every way. He was mean and vicious to his younger brother and sister as well. Both Braedon and Mairi have been the victims of emotional abuse from Connor in a various way. I don’t clearly know about Mairi since her experience with Connor wasn’t explored. But she was a bit anxiety riddled all the time, which tells me she also witnessed some things that surely affected her. But Braedon knew what his brother was capable of from his childhood, when Connor killed his favorite puppy for no reason at all. Then, there were some other examples of Connor’s cruelties, that came out in a letter by his father, written on his deathbed. That letter explains why he had to kill his favorite son with his own hands. My reactions towards Braedon’s childhood traumas and hurt were sympathetic. I can see why a little boy would be frightened to love someone, or something, too much and fear of the risk of losing it. Sometimes, even when you grow up, it doesn’t go away. An older Braedon made sure he’s nothing like his father or Connor; no unrelenting wenching, gambling and other idle sports to prove their ‘manliness’. Braedon’s love for antiquities was entirely accidental but a savior nonetheless. His father even mocked his little ‘hobby’! Braedon fought in the war; something proved to be a diversion to him and did a fine job. Afterwards, he began exploring his long loving interest and pursed in full force. Can’t tell you how much I loved Braedon’s focus on his work and the fact that he wasn’t a womanizer! If all the indications are true, he was celibate. Even after he returned to London, met Chloe and worked with her for about a year afterwards. The rumors of his ‘vast conquests’ in Europe, to me, were just what they were- rumors. Braedon was in love with his work and devoted himself to it. And he would avoid being emotionally entangled with anyone, by any means, because he was scared of being hurt.

But where does that leave Chloe, who was already falling a little for this man each day? Why I said that Chloe begins finding some answers to her soul searching, is that, the moment she saw Braedon, things changed. She saw a purpose that she couldn’t deny. And it developed into something meaningful in a very short time. Of course, she was totally devastated by his manly good looks. But she also loved his devotion to his work, his brilliance. I LOVED the way she would at Braedon and think of how it’d feel like to touch him (and his manly muscles winkwink), just once. Unrequited longing, can I ask for anything more? Chloe loves to see him in motion, be it walking, working on his weapons or practicing swordfight with his friend Sir Thomas. But, the object of her obsession, it seems like, doesn’t know she’s a woman. And why would he? Chloe knows how to hide herself and apparently, so far she’s been doing a splendid job, again. In the meantime, Mairi comes to visit Braedon. It’s very evident, the love these siblings share and also, a dislike for their elder brother. Mairi sees what Chloe and Braedon have been trying so hard to hide. A shared passion for the same work, they understand each-other like no other. On her inquiry, Braedon is shocked. Hardwick? OMG, the horror! Yah I know, he was a bit obtuse but I also knew why. Braedon knew how dependent he really is on his Hardwick. What if he becomes emotionally involved? It’d just devastate him again.

But Mairi doesn’t give up. Even though she had her own troubled marriage to deal with, Mairi plans to bring out the ‘real’ Chloe. At least, somewhat real. Now, Chloe is also horrified and very uncomfortable. Would it be a good thing to make herself vulnerable? But she also knew that the marquess needs to see her without her usual dress up and so, she accedes. The ‘new’ Chloe does have a devastating effect on Braedon. He knew there was something underneath all those buttons but he didn’t foresee the kind of effect she’ll have on him! Along with her efficiency and her hard work, his Hardwick is also a beautiful woman! Oh, the horror!! God, it was as funny as it was exasperating to see Braedon in a tizzy about the whole thing. heehee And he was a bit of a jerk towards Chloe because of his own reactions. I know it sounds ludicrous but Braedon was trying so hard to maintain that thin line, and now, it’d be so hard. But, Chloe interprets his attitude as her own defeat. She decides, maybe she’ll have to go away for a while to let him stew a bit. I gladly approved. Sometimes it’s required, isn’t it? Mairi was already a bit nervous about her own marriage and wanted to save it in any way possible. Braedon also gave her some admonitions, asking her to think hard about what she wants from it. It seems like Lord Ashton actually loves his wife and the whole thing between them was a gross misunderstanding. As Mairi and Chloe talk, there is a plan of surprising Ashton for his birthday. Mairi would love to have an assistant like Chloe to help her for the tremendous work that it’d take. So, when Braedon hurts her with that indifference, Chloe decides to resign. She leaves for London with Mairi.

In a few weeks, Braedon begins to feel what it is to miss his Hardwick. I know, he tried telling himself it was all for his weaponry collection, that the work of the new wing is being delayed because the workers are squabbling over small things but he missed her presence too. Then there was the talk of an ancient spear called Skanda’s Spear, which Braedon wanted to acquire no matter what. Chloe was supposed to have helped him with her spidery network of informants, among other things. In a nutshell, Braedon decides he needs his Hardwick back at Denning Hall, and soon. In London, Chloe was stealthily trying to find herself. Since leaving Denning Hall, she’s been afloat, not knowing what really to do with her life. Should she live as a chameleon, molding herself as per someone’s need forever or should she decide on something that makes her happy or at least gives her the self-assurance she needs? She was still working of that surprise for Lord Ashton, and visits this baker’s shop. She sees that Madame Baker is very happy about what she does. Chloe wanted to see if this is her calling and this is how Braedon finds Chloe, as she was laughing and helping the baker. Another scene I loved because this bright and laughing Chloe is something Braedon has never witnessed and it strikes him again, hard.

Braedon tries his best to convince Chloe that she’s needed back in Denning Hall but Chloe refuses. And she was right to refuse. Chloe knew she can’t go back to that life again. In this process of convincing, there are a few kisses as well, first of which happens kinda accidentally, as a ruse, but it was an insane kiss nonetheless. Even though Chloe decided not to return to Denning Hall, she agreed to help Braedon out in his search for Skanda’s Spear. They meet this very old Italian antiquarian, Senor Pisano, who was, I believe, Chloe’s stepfather’s acquaintance. The Senor is very affectionate towards Chloe. As they talk, another competitor for Skanda’s Spear barges into the shop, when Chloe and Braedon is forced to take the ruse of a newly married couple. This the little push they needed. The kiss was full of passion because neither Chloe nor Braedon held back. This ensue more kisses and arguments later on that only proves that they can’t really go back into their ‘old’ existence. There’s just too much awareness between them now. It’s so passionate and intense that Braedon finds himself in a fix. And he again, begins to act like a jerk, so that he can get hold of his sanity. I was exasperated, TBH but I applauded Chloe that she held on, even when Braedon’s words hurt her. Then again, she knew that any kind of future between them was not foreseeable. But her foolish heart won’t listen to reasons.

One day, after returning to his townhouse, Braedon finds a big surprise waiting for him, something not wholly unexpected but hits him just the same. Braedon finds Connor’s illegitimate son waiting for him with his foster mother. He doesn’t know what to do with the boy when the woman demands he take Rob in. He begins planning on sending Rob to one of his tenants. In the midst of this, there are some problems in Mairi’s own townhouse and they needed to move the ball somewhere else. Braedon was not really happy about it, but on Mairi’s insistent, he gives in. Now, the ball would take place in his. Later Braedon remembers Rob and is concerned about Mairi’s reaction towards him since Rob is the spitting image of Connor. I don’t know why he needed to hide Rob away but I got his brotherly concern. It was heartbreaking nonetheless, from both sides. Rob was hurt, because cruel as it was, he understood why his uncle didn’t want him anywhere near other people. And Braedon felt like a worm to have made such dealings with a little boy. I felt his helplessness and sympathized as I felt much for Rob. The boy tries his best to stay hidden but his acquisition, a puppy (given by Braedon, in exchange for his hidden state) would make cute troubles. Chloe, who was working in Braedon’s house for the ball, begins noticing the boy and the puppy, but had no idea who they were. Braedon lies to her later that it’s a tenant orphan boy he’s taken in for a short while.

In the meantime, the mysteries surrounding Skanda’s Spear become a tense one. They were close but not enough. With the help of the Senor, Chloe and Braedon meet Lord Conover, another antiquarian, the only person who has seen the spear himself. I won’t go into the whole mystery of Skanda’s Spear, but Chole’s acquaintance to Conover incites jealousy into Braedon. Already Braedon knew what Chloe wanted, something he wants himself as well. And so, one night, Chloe convinces him to give into this ‘thing’ they have. Good God, I wish there were more love scenes because it was hot and sweet altogether! The scenes afterwards between them were very heart tugging. I love them, especially the one very next day, after Chloe spied on Braedon in his sword practice, again, something she found utterly delicious. Those scenes proved how much they both belonged to one another and made me sigh more than once. But I wish Braedon wasn’t being a doucebag to Chloe, again, on the day of the ball. Chloe understood, even wanted to soothe away his fears. Braedon has so far bared a lot of the things that hung heavy on his soul, as Chloe did of hers. But somehow, he just couldn’t yet take that big step. You know what, that should’ve made me wanna throw a hissy fit but as I said, I sort of understood his standing. The last misunderstanding was bittersweet but the subsequent grovelling was just.......in love Braedon finally realized that that big step he was denying himself would lead him to something he could cherish for the rest of his life. He might get hurt, or not, but without taking that step he’d never find out. He also grasped at the need to share his life and so, he chose Chloe. Honestly, when a man, so awkwardly talks about his feelings and begs forgiveness, I can’t just not feel anything for him. And the best thing was, Chloe understood Braedon like no other and never stopped loving him.

The only thing, I thought was missing from the book, was an epilogue, which I would’ve appreciated. So, would Rob grow up and be the hero of his own book? Even Sir Thomas; somehow I need to know more about him and why he did what he did. I don’t know the answers but I’ll keep my eyes open for more of DM’s works.

5 sighing stars from me. Wonderful book! happytears