This week we are Dishing about Courtney Milan’s latest historical romance, Unclaimed. A twist on the playboy hero and innocent heroine, Milan’s Sir Mark Turner is known for his chastity, while Jessica Farleigh is an experienced courtesan. Interested in this role reversal, we decided to dig deep and see if Jessica’s reputation could be redeemed or if she instead would jeopardize Mark’s standing in society.
Morgan: I’ve definitely never gone looking for a book with a courtesan heroine before, but I am so glad that we picked up Courtney Milan’s newest. It is very different from other historical tales because of the great characters.
Whitney: This is actually the second book that I have read this month with a “worldly” heroine, the other being Suzanne Enoch’s upcoming A Beginner’s Guide to Rakes. I really appreciate how Milan and Enoch’s heroines have a bit more edge to them, then say, a debutante fresh out of the schoolroom. These ladies know what they want and are going to do whatever it takes to reach their goals.
Morgan: Well, in Unclaimed, Jessica certainly isn’t going to let anything stand in the way of getting out of “the biz”.
Whitney: Even though this makes her come off as a bit heartless at first. I mean to get enough money to quit her admittedly unorthodox job, Jessica has to turn one final “trick” and get poor Sir Mark to give up his vow of chastity.
Morgan: Agreeing to take down Sir Mark does seem kind of cold, especially because Jessica doesn’t know him or his motivation behind his choice to remain a virgin well into his late twenties.
Whitney: So really his only crime is being an upstanding guy. Mark is truly innocent, figuratively and literally.
Morgan: Although by publishing a book that advocates male chastity, he does catapult himself into the spotlight.
Whitney: But he doesn’t write the book in order to become popular. Mark does it because he has seen how women are treated after they have sex out of wedlock.
Morgan: I thought it was really smart of Milan to make Mark’s motivation something that can still be an issue today — the double standards between men and women when sex is involved. I feel this allows contemporary readers to connect with the underlying premise of Unclaimed because the difference in expectations for the sexes was even more true in the Victorian era, during this time the woman who is blamed for and ruined by such behavior.
Whitney: Mark definitely thinks the double standard is unfair, especially when he gets so much attention for being chaste when thousands of women all over the country do this everyday out of society’s dictates and their self-restraint goes unnoticed.
Morgan: But when a man stays chaste, that turns him into what amounts to a rock star. I mean, Mark is the talk of town, gets chased around by the historical equivalent of the paparazzi and he even gets the attention of the Queen who knights him for writing A Gentleman’s Practical Guide to Chastity.
Whitney: Not to mention the attention he gets from his political rivals. Unscrupulous men work very hard behind the scenes to discredit Mark.
Morgan: Hence the reason Jessica is after him. Her former protector promises her a substantial amount of money to prove that Sir Mark is not as saintly as he appears.
Whitney: So when Mark retreats for some well needed R&R to the small town of his birth, Shepton Mallet, Jessica tracks him down with a plan of seduction.
Morgan: Thinking that Sir Mark will be easy pickings in the country without the prying eyes of society, Jessica packs her most outrageous gowns and settles on a plan of all-out sensual warfare to get him into bed.
Whitney: But this definitely backfires when everyone in Shepton Mallet is almost as intrigued by Jessica, a newcomer to town who claims to be a widow, as they are by Mark. But instead of adoring her the way they do Mark, the community ostracizes Jessica for her straightforward attitude and willingness to speak her mind.
Morgan: Thankfully, Mark likes these parts of her personality. He enjoys Jessica’s humor and they share the ability to laugh at the ridiculous nature of society that is so eager to label everyone. When they first meet, they actually make fun of the fact that the villagers have been so judgmental.
“Mrs. Jessica Farleigh, official town disgrace. At your service.”
“Sir Mark Turner. I speak with the tongues of a thousand angels. Butterflies follow me whereever I go. Birds sing when I take a breath.”
Whitney: This is just one of the many hilarious exchanges that take place as they fight everybody’s expectations — and discover that they have more in common than they ever believed.
Morgan: Well, maybe not too much in common. I mean, in order to cause Mark’s fall from grace, Jessica shows up at his house, at night, wearing soaking wet clothing and ready to hop into bed.
Whitney: I’m not sure who was more shocked that he turned her down — Jessica or me!
Morgan: Mark does have his principles and he isn’t going to give in. In his eyes a key component to staying chaste is being responsible for your own actions — and not letting the behavior of others sway your course.
Whitney: It is not only Jessica trying to influence him; the community also works on swaying Mark. They don’t want him associating with Jessica, someone they deem morally unacceptable.
Morgan: To be fair, the community is pretty on target when they paint Jessica in an unfavorable light. After all, she is a fallen woman who takes money to sleep with men and, in this case, use her wiles to ruin Sir Mark.
Whitney: I think I need to remind you of one of Mark’s favorite sayings: “There is no such thing as a fallen women. You just had to look for the man who pushed her down.”
Morgan: Okay, okay, I get your point. As do the residents of Shepton Mallet. Once the town folk get to know Jessica, they warm to her. But unfortunately Jessica still has a hard time thinking of herself anything other than a courtesan. It colors everything she does.
Whitney: So much so that when Mark says he wants to protect her she assumes that he will be her “protector” and she will be his mistress. I challenge any reader to not be moved by this moment.
Morgan: She just needs to realize that Mark does not care about her past, he cares about her. When Jessica is in his company, she gets to remember that there’s a lot more to her than her occupation. This shift in thinking changes her whole perspective on life.
Whitney: This isn’t a one-way street, either. As Mark is treating Jessica like a real person, she is doing the same to him — she doesn’t put him on a pedestal. Their interactions remind Mark that he’s not as perfect as he has been trying to act.
Morgan: I did take some perverse pleasure in the popular, can’t-do-wrong Sir Mark owning up to the fact that he is not entirely worthy of society’s praise.
Whitney: This is a hard lesson considering the fact that Mark demands the best from himself at all times — there’s no margin for error. And I feel that that really spills over onto his expectations of the people around him.
Morgan: Mark is possibly one of the most judgmental characters I have ever read, but not in the way readers would expect. Instead of judging a person from past actions, he is all about the present. He tells Jessica again and again that she could do better for herself than she is doing.
Whitney: One scene in particular that really brings this point home is when they are in the shooting contest. When Mark realizes that Jessica is throwing the competition in order to let him win, he is furious. It is no longer a silly game to him. He makes it very clear that he will not allow her to put herself down or degrade herself for anyone — especially not him. He demands that she do better because he knows that she can. He will accept nothing less for her.
Morgan: This message has a huge effect on Jessica. When someone she has come to trust and admire tells her she can do better, she actually starts to believe it. And, in turn, starts to believe in herself again.
Whitney: The way you put that sounds a little corny, but honestly, this is exactly why we read romances, to enjoy that satisfying feeling of happily ever after. And to see characters end up better together than they could ever be apart.
Morgan: Absolutely, which is why I definitely recommend Unclaimed to readers who will also be excited to know that the series starter Unveiled and a novella “Unlocked” are out now and the next book, Unraveled will be out in stores at the end of November!
Find out what happens to Mark and Jessica by picking up your own copy of Unclaimed in stores now. And if you want to read along with Whitney and Morgan, next week we will be Dishing about Victoria Dahl's contemporary romance series second, Bad Boys Do!