Reviewed by Katie
The Duke of Malchester, Devon Howard, was thirty-two, twice a widower, shrouded in gossip and suspicion regarding the deaths of his previous wives, his treatment of servants and his libertine ways. At seventeen, Liliana was literally auctioned off and married to the highest bidder. It was no wonder she was afraid to entrust her body, mind or heart to a man she met a month prior to the wedding. The nuptial night, while exciting, wasn’t enough to convince her to lower her guard and so, Liliana clung to her dignity, residing at Calder Hall, a duchess in name only. For three years, Devon roamed who knows where with an entourage that included his mistress. His absences were long, his visits short and pleasant enough, so long as she kept her distance.
When her beloved grandfather dies, things come to the point between them. Devon presses for her admission that they could be more than married in name only. She agrees but only if he removes his mistress from their home and his life, permanently. Surprisingly (not), his mistress objects to this and sets in motion a plan to ruin Devon and Liliana’s newborn happiness. Secrets are thrust into the light of day; tragedy is dressed in silks and lies, while sorrow hides behind parties and titles, altogether creating a compelling tale that makes you shudder and gasp right along with the characters.
This was not a comfortable story but it was a most excellent read! With the feel of a traditional gothic, written in a style well aware of the modern reader, the author never forgets the values and mores of the times. Neither can you. Her atmospheric tone is perfect; lush and a bit bawdy, which suits the Duke very well indeed. The dismal facts of family life that saw children living entirely separate from their parents until they could be of use, and the reality of arranged marriages seldom being more than tolerable, are facts historical readers and writers know yet are seldom willing to accept beyond the plot device or back story.
Ms. Howarth doesn’t back up to these realities, she wields them with empathetic skill. I swear I could hear her sighs in the dark corridors and possibly felt her restraining hand when I wanted to smack her hero for being a - well, an ass. She doesn’t apologize for a hero that genuinely believes a woman wasn’t really his mistress so long as he didn’t penetrate her vagina. Neither is she ashamed of a heroine that allows the past to be put aside because she wants a future that means something more than disdainful distance and loneliness. That Devon and Liliana go from physical passion to emotional friendship while proclaiming love rang with realistic emphasis on the way things were, and sometimes still are. As they spent time together without the entourage and distrust between them, you could see the happily ever after to be, and yes, the squabbles as well.
Foibles and imperfections are brutally exposed and though we cringe the characters do not even flinch. They’re bold and gritty, hopeful and yes, aware they’re not always at their best when all is said and done; however no one gives up or bemoans cruel fate (yippee!). They resolve to make amends where possible and carry on, regardless. The use of jealousy to arouse interest is seldom a maneuver I can tolerate. _But_ … in this case, it suited both the characters and the situation. When they began talking, sharing their thoughts without the affectations of pride, confessing loneliness and hurts, I let go of my long standing prejudice against the machination. Whether another author could’ve managed that I am not sure, certainly none before has done so.
The secondary characters, both the living and dead, were as intriguing and reflective of the times, as coarse in their own way as the awakening couple. The historical details were devastatingly accurate. There is no glossy coating here, this is a mature man, thrice married, that lives as men of wealth and position did. Liliana is no fool, only young, and without familiar support or anyone to lean on but her maid, she does what women did; find a way to make things work. Not only did the writing hold my interest but also my admiration for a convincing honesty weaving a wonderful historically gothic tale. I am already squeezing my budget for more of Ms. Howarth’s books!