|With A Secret Affair, popular romance author Mary Balogh brings her “Huxtable Family Saga” to a satisfying conclusion. The hero is the enigmatic Constantine Huxtable, the second cousin of the protagonists of the first four novels in the series. We met Con when he welcomed the new and unexpected Earl of Merton and his three sisters to Warren Hall, the family estate where he had lived his entire life. Con’s beloved younger brother, Jonathan, had been the previous earl, but Jon died at sixteen, then a ripe old age for someone born with Down’s Syndrome. Con’s status was unusual: he was the eldest son of the fifth earl and his countess but he had been born two days before the two could marry. So he could never inherit and the title and the entailed wealth of the estate which went to his unknown cousin.
At first, Con was not unexpectedly less than happy with the situation but somewhat to his own surprise, he found himself unable to resist the warmth and friendliness of his newly discovered relatives. Three of the other Huxtables – the new earl and his sisters Elizabeth and Katherine – became very close to Con. The third sister, Vanessa, was estranged. She had married Con’s cousin, Elliot, now Duke of Moreland and the two men had had a serious falling out. Elliot had come to believe that Con had stolen valuable jewels from the estate and that he debauched a number of women in the neighborhood. He had shared this belief with Vanessa who had her own reasons for distrusting Con. The hostility between Con and Elliot had been an ongoing thread in the previous novels. Of course, any astute reader knew that that there was more to the story and have waited patiently for Con to have his happy ending.
The heroine of A Secret Affair is Hannah Reid, the widowed Duchess of Dunbarton. Hannah has a dubious reputation. At the age of nineteen, she married a man old enough to be her grandfather. Her beauty and her position give her status in society, but “everyone knows” that she had cuckolded her doting husband on a regular basis during her ten year marriage. Now, after her year of mourning, she has come to London and decided that she will take a lover, but not any lover. She has set her sights on Constantine Huxtable, attracted by both his face and his air of mystery.
Con quickly recognizes that the duchess has designs on his person and is at first loathe to play her game. But if Hannah learned anything from her duke, it is how to get what she wants. Since he had hoped to find a mistress for the season in any event, Con decides, what the heck! Con and Hannah agree to have a purely physical affair for the duration of the season. But, of course, the best laid plans often go astray.
Gradually, Con – and the reader – discovers that the duchess is not what she seems, that there is much more to her that her lovely and practiced façade suggests. Hannah had been shattered when she was betrayed by those who were closest to her. Her duke had helped her to recreate and to value herself. Likewise, Hannah discovers that Con is much more than his handsome face and his seeming air of mystery. These are two people who begin their relationship with sex and unexpectedly find something much deeper. It is very satisfying to watch them fall in love.
I’m not sure how someone who has not followed the Huxtable saga will respond to A Secret Affair. I have read and enjoyed the previous four books. Like the culminating story in any such series, the novel is full of characters from the other novels. I think that Balogh provides enough backstory for the uninitiated reader, but I am so familiar with the Huxtables that I can’t say for sure. A more jaded reader might find the marital happiness of the family a bit too much, but I am one who likes to see old favorites enjoying their happily ever afters. And, of course, it is nice to see the breach between Con and Elliot healed at last.
Certainly, anyone who has read the previous Huxtable books will want to read A Secret Affair. I don’t think they will be disappointed with how it all turns out.
Balogh remains my very favorite historical romance author. She creates characters who seem rooted in their time and place, who act and usually think not like contemporary men and women transported to 19th century England, but like individuals who are navigating a society very different from our own. If I have any caveat about A Secret Affair, it is because Con’s and Hannah’s social attitudes and reform projects seem a bit too modern. But this is a minor quibble. I was caught up in their love story and that’s what I want in a romance novel.