Lord Hunter’s Cinderella Heiress (Wild Lords and Innocent Ladies #1) by Lara Temple

I enjoyed Lord Hunter’s Cinderella Heiress, but it was nothing like I expected based on its long- winded misnomer of a title, and has very little in common with the Disney fairytale – and that’s a good thing!  Instead, in this sophisticated and sexy twist, our ‘Cinders’ lives with a spiteful aunt, and an overbearing, meddlesome father, finding joy and happiness in a love of horses and friends at school.  When first they meet, her “prince” is a mere blip in the fabric her life, but fate (and the delightful machinations of this talented author) bring them together years later. It’s not quite a happy reunion – well, it’s actually the farthest thing from it – but Ms. Temple deftly steers her fated couple to a fairy tale ending anyway.

Helen “Nell” Tilney, returned to her family for the summer, is counting the days until her return to school.  Time spent at home is torturous; her evil aunt delights in tormenting and bullying her at every opportunity, and her seemingly oblivious father only notices her in order to criticize her or when he needs or wants something .  Happiness – and a reprieve from their machinations – comes from spending time with the horses her father raises on their estate or away at school. Nell has spent the morning riding when she’s summoned to show off her favorite horse, Petra, to a potential buyer.

Gabriel, Lord Hunter, who lives on a neighboring estate, is surprised by the slight girl who emerges from the stable, horse in tow.  But he’s frankly astonished by her talent putting the horse through its paces. Fierce and commanding, Nell is a revelation on horseback.  When she finally, reluctantly, hands off Petra to him, he demonstrates his own finesse as a horse rider. Years spent in the saddle as a soldier have taught him to appreciate a horse of Petra’s quality, and he’s relieved by the sense of approval he sees in Nell’s eyes.  Nell is impressed with Gabriel’s skill – and intrigued by her handsome, though clearly weary, neighbor. After spending an amicable afternoon together, they part – curious about each other – but with little expectation of meeting again.

Fate – and a spiteful aunt – have other plans.  That evening, Nell is summoned to dinner with her family and the handsome Lord Hunter. But the Nell that enters the drawing room is nothing like the fierce horsewoman Gabriel met earlier in the day.  Obviously reluctant to join their group, cowed and timid in the face of her aunt’s nastiness and her father’s obliviousness, Nell is a pale imitation of the girl Gabriel so admired earlier in the day.  The evening ends in disaster after Nell, who’s finally had enough, turns on her aunt. Passionate, angry and fierce, Nell delivers a set down that Gabriel can’t help but admire.

Nell departs for school early the next morning, before Gabriel can congratulate her for standing up to her aunt.  But after a night spent reminiscing on Nell’s magnificent self-defense, and with thoughts of advantageously joining his estate to the Tilney’s, he approaches Sir Henry to ask for her hand.  Tilney agrees and promises to inform Nell of the agreement. Lord Hunter departs.

Four years pass wherein Nell spends time away from home working as a schoolmistress – waiting to come of age and take ownership of the horse farm left to her by her beloved mother; by contrast, Gabriel enjoys the life of a notorious libertine and rake.  Privately, Gabriel still mourns the suicide of his younger brother, whose funeral he attended shortly before meeting Nell. With the help of two close friends and former officers, he’s established safe havens for returning war veterans. But Nell knows nothing of Gabriel’s secret benevolence, so when she discovers she’s betrothed to him – via a notice placed in the Morning Post by her father – she arrives in a fury on Gabriel’s doorstep demanding an explanation and a retraction.

Gabriel has no intention of ending their engagement in such a public manner.  After convincing Nell of the same, they agree to travel to the races at Wilton and speak to her father – together – about breaking off the longstanding engagement.  Gabriel enjoys his rakish lifestyle, the pleasure of his mistress, and his solitude. Nell wants nothing more than to take ownership of the horse farm and possibly attract the attentions of a neighbour for whom she’s nurtured a tendre since childhood.  But reader, you (and I) already know it’s too late. Once Gabriel meets this new incarnation of Nell – spirited, headstrong and beautiful – he’s smitten, though he fights hard to resist his attraction to her. Nell, who’s secretly tracked Gabriel’s antics via the gossip pages, is similarly intrigued by her betrothed but determined to pursue a relationship with another man.  Fortunately for us, both the journey and the destination provide ample opportunity for our star crossed lovers to find and fall for each other.

As Gabriel and Nell spend time together, their chemistry is palpable.  Gabriel, knowledgeable about the physical aspect of loving, struggles to deal with the emotional intimacy Nell sparks deep within.  He suffered under the abuse of his father, and even after finally freeing his brother and mother, can’t help but feel he’s failed them after his brother commits suicide.  He blames himself for his brother’s death (I won’t say why here, but it is heartbreaking and understandable). Despair and a feeling of unworthiness plague him in all his relationships, and in particular, keep him closed off from Nell’s kind spirit and instinctive desire to help.  He hides his vulnerability behind a suave veneer – but Nell sees glimpses of it and can’t resist attempting to draw Gabriel out. Nell, physically naive, but emotionally strong, offers a compelling contrast to her betrothed. She’s learned to believe in herself and her own power and strength, and wants Gabriel to lean on her.  Naïve about physical passion and intimacy, Nell is bewildered by her attraction to Gabriel – who isn’t the man she’s yearned for since girlhood. Gabriel is similarly flustered by the emotional closeness he feels to Nell… together, they make a terrific pair, complimenting each other in every way, and Ms. Temple deftly plots their transition from strangers to foes to friends… and finally lovers.  I enjoyed every bit of their evolving relationship, though my major complaint about this novel is the author’s heavy handed hints at Gabriel’s prowess in bed. We get it. He’s good in the sack. Enough.

Looking for a mature, sexy and modern twist on the classic knight in shining armor fairytale?  Well look no further – romantic, passionate, and sexy Lord Hunter’s Cinderella Heiress is the one you’ve been waiting for.