The Willing Widow is a wonderful historically rich written buffet complete with a dashing Irishman, a monster in law like no other and a host of colourful characters as diverse as New Orleans herself. Part love story and part mystery it is no surprise that The Willing Widow (originally titled Her First Love) won the Heart and Scroll RWA Magic Moments Contest in 2011. The talented mother daughter duo who write under the pseudonym of Ursula LeCoeur followed up this win with another in 2013 at the Viriginia Fool for Love contest with their soon to be published When a Lady Loves, which is how I stumbled upon this gem of a story.
- Title: The Willing Widow
- Author: Ursula LeCoeur
- ASIN: B00K0VPHDY
- Series: Love in New Orleans
- Published: Royal Street Publishing (April 28, 2014)
- Format: eARC
- Genre: Historical romance
- Page Count: 298
- Source: Author
- Rating: A
Disclaimer: ARC was kindly provided by the author for an honest review.
After six months in a loveless marriage, widow Renee Deselle vows never to repeat the error. Left a pittance by her wealthy husband, she throws her energy into Deselle Millinery, building it into the most popular hat shop in the city. But when a handsome Irishman barges into her shop, she begins to realize there’s more to life than hats.
William Collins, the new manager of his uncle’s cotton brokerage, arrives in America hoping to forget a certain Irish miss. A few moments with the beautiful milliner banishes all thoughts of his past romantic misfortune.
Each is willing to risk another heartache to pursue love, but dangers lurk beneath the city’s glamorous façade. Rumors fly about Renee’s past infidelities and William’s present dissolute habits. Strange men follow Renee whenever she ventures out, day or night. Thousands of dollars disappear from the Cotton Exposition’s treasury. William realizes someone is trying to kill him.
The couple struggles to learn the common thread linking these occurrences. Is Renee’s vindictive mother-in-law behind it all? Or does the intrigue originate higher up with one of the city’s ruling families? Can their love triumph when the city itself seems to be conspiring against them?
The Willing Widow features a very progressive and independent woman, particularly when taking into consideration the time that this story takes place in. Renee Deselle took what few assets she had after her mother-in-law inherited the bulk her husband’s estate, abandoning her son’s wife to make her own way in the world, and opted to become a shopkeeper. She readopts her maiden name and opens a stylish millinery boutique despite her mother-in-law’s personal and social opposition.
“I’m sorry, Miss Renee.” Michelle lowered her voice. “You’ve always said that there are two kinds of ladies in the world – those with heads for a hat and those without.”
“Maybe we’ll make a bibi for Madame Voison,” Renee said. “Those very small hats are coming into fashion in Paris right now. If it’s placed high on the head like this” – she pointed to one drawing – “with a chignon strap in the back under her hair rather than a chin ribbon to hold it in place, everyone will look up at the beautiful hat and her amazing eyes.”
After being crossed in love William chooses to move to the New World rather than continue in his profitable whisky brewing profession in Ireland and vows never to love again. Like Renee, he seeks to increase his fortune in trade learning the cotton business at his uncle’s side. Almost immediately he crosses paths with the heroine, on his way to the haberdashery, which conveniently adjoins her shop, their mutual attraction is immediate and undeniable. Imagining Renee to be a knowledgeable woman of the world having been married in the past, he considers her to be a perfect potential bedmate without the risk that the marriageable ladies of New Orleans society might pose.
Despite her status as a widow, I found Renee to be appealingly naive believing that she could blithely engage in an affair without any repercussions to her reputation and/or business and in his own way William is also rather innocent making them an ideal pair, which of course all can see, but the characters themselves. Both characters are largely oblivious to the faults of others but not to the point of absurdity. As I read the story I found that I genuinely engaged with the plights of Renee and William and became in turns frustrated with and apprehensive about their welfare. They were uncommonly realistic and believable in their actions and motivations demonstrating the author’s skill in maintaining the readers sense of setting with no discordant references that would belie the time period in which the story takes place.
The Willing Widow was a refreshing change of pace from what I have been reading recently making me nostalgic for some of the classic historical romances of the likes of Judith McNaught and Megan McKinney, which I read over and over again in the past. Yet this story had its own unique flavour particularly in the vibrant setting of New Orleans and the usage of a substantial sub-plot featuring a mystery rather than the typical romantic misunderstanding that is a tissue paper thin obstacle preventing the characters from reaching their HEA.
After reading this lovely story the only remaining question I had was, what exactly was a “Bibi” to which the author kindly stated the following: In late 19th century, any small fanciful and elegant type of hat was called Bibi. It sat perched on the top of the head and often had a chignon strap that went under the fashionable hair style.
My final recommendation is that you pour yourself a glass of sherry or brandy if you prefer (like Renee) and enjoy a skilfully rendered trip to the New Orleans of old with The Willing Widow.
GUEST POST – URSULA LeCOEUR
Were the 1880s the Golden Age of the Dog?
A reader asked what sort of pets Americans owned during Victorian times.
Short answer—birds, dogs and cats—in that order.
Settlers arrived here with dogs, cats and a penchant for caging songbirds. The first two served useful purposes on the farm. Caged birds provided entertainment indoors.
By the second half of the 19th century, the growing middle class moved to the cities where their animals became pets. By definition, pets were allowed in the house, were individually named and were never eaten.
Companionship was enough reason to own one. But to Victorians, who always sought a way to instill family values, pets were thought to be useful in teaching children kindness and responsibility.
The most popular of Victorian pets was the singing bird. In the 1880s, cardinals, goldfinches or mockingbirds in a gilded cage graced many a formal parlor. Parrots and canaries were also fashionable. In our noise-filled world today, a bird’s soft song would not be noticed over the TV, video games and cell phones. But in the 1880s, with not even a radio in a home, a bird’s song offered pleasant tones.
In fact, birds were so important in the home that a trendy wedding gift in this era was an elaborate birdcage containing a mechanical bird that flapped its wings and sang.
Dogs took second place in the list, both small dogs ideal for a lady’s lap or large dogs bred for a gentleman’s hunting party.
Queen Victoria loved dogs. Her affinity for small dogs spread the fashion across her empire over which the sun never set. All the way to America. The queen’s particular favorite was a sable red Pomeranian named Marco. Charles Button Barber painted Marco in 1893 on the queen’s breakfast table, a place he was said to visit at will. The queen’s boundless enthusiasm for her dogs has led some writers to refer to the second half of the 19th century as the “Golden age of the dog.”
With no royalty, Americans took interest in the president’s pets. Rutherford B. Hayes (1877-1881) owned eight dogs and three cats. An English mastiff named Duke, a cocker spaniel named Dot and the first Siamese cats in the country: Siam and Miss Pussy, were favorites. James Garfield (1881) had a dog named Veto. Grover Cleveland (1885-1889) kept a Japanese poodle named Hector and several mockingbirds at the White House.
Cats ranked third in the hearts of Victorians. They allowed cats in the house, but still thought of these animals as workers whose job was to keep rodents out of the kitchen in either a humble cottage or a grand palace.
How times have changed. Today, cats top the list of American pets. According to the U.S. Pet Ownership & Demographics Sourcebook (2012), 74 million cats, 70 million dogs and 3 million birds reside in American homes.
Photo of painting of Princess Victoria of Kent (later Queen Victoria) in 1833 with her dog Dash, courtesy of commons.wikimedia.org
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ursula LeCoeur is the pen name of a mother-daughter writing team, Mary and Helen. We’re excited to introduce our debut romance, The Willing Widow, in the Love in New Orleans Series.
We set our romances in 1880s New Orleans because our roots run deep there. Our family settled in the city many, many years ago and later spread out across the Gulf Coast. We know the faith, the food and the fantasy of America’s most romantic city.
We were raised on the history, foods, stories and traditions of New Orleans. Helen’s first book, a literary novel, In the Hope of Rising Again (Penguin Press 2004, Riverhead 2005), is also available on Amazon.com.
We love to hear from readers. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit our website, http://www.ursulalecoeur.com for regular blogs on New Orleans history and culture as well as posts of traditional Southern recipes.
Please comment for a chance to win a copy of The Willing Widow (Paperback open to US residents only, eBook open Internationally)