|In A Lady's Secret, Jo Beverley returns to the heady chaos of eighteenth-century Europe, when men were men, and women were not averse to a little fun on the side.
Robin Fitzvitry, the Earl of Huntserdown, is returning to England from Versailles when he hears a nun curse in Italian. Some masculine instinct tells him not to judge a woman by her veil, and intrigued by the possibilities of a new mistress, he offers her a place in his coach.
Petra d'Averio is wary of the rakish gentleman, but she has good reasons for accepting him. She has spent the last few years in a convent outside Milan, determined to avoid the unsavory proposal of an Italian aristocrat. Recent events have forced her to flee, and she is hoping to receive the protection of her biological English father. Although Petra suspects that Robin is telling as many lies as she is, she also feels he represents her best chance. And so begin their adventures in France and England. As the two face storm, treacherous inn-keepers, sleazy lodgings, bad roads, and relentless pursuers, they also get to know each other and fall in love.
More youthful charmer than hard-core Alpha, Robin is not as masterful, mysterious or tortured as other Beverley heroes. He does, however, take his responsibilities seriously, and quickly feels the appropriate guilt about his secret intentions towards Petra. In the course of the book, he becomes more responsible and more adult-like. This is partly, but not only, due to his involvement with Petra.
Petra is a welcome blend of independence, intelligence and healthy sexuality. She has had a rather difficult life, but never sinks into self-pity. Even her attitude towards her former lover is commendable: she acknowledges her desire for him, but does not believe it ever justified his current possessive behavior.
Beverley's attention to historical detail is as good as ever. Her description of a shoddy French inn, her account of life on the road, and her ear for local dialect do credit to her excellent research and writing skills. I have always enjoyed the way she turns a traditional nursery rhyme into a leitmotif (think of the on-going jokes about the Grand Panjadrum and his button in A Rogue's Return). A Lady's Secret does not disappoint on this score. Both Petra and Robin make good use of Robin's different literary namesakes, most obviously Cock Robin, the reluctant victim of sparrow's bow and arrow. Their bantering and riddling are delightful to read.
Where the book does fall short is in its pacing. Too much happens in the first half: Petra reveals her secrets, Robin succeeds in his plans, and they engage in the major (and pretty much only) seduction scene. Of course, there is quite a lot to hold the reader's attention in the second half of the book: at the very least, both Robin and Petra have some growing up to do. While they do so convincingly, they also spend most of this time apart. And if this demonstrates both Petra's independence and Robin's budding maturity, it also deprives the reader of seeing more of their delightful interaction.
As compensation, we are allowed to revisit the Mallorens. I won't give away a rather obvious spoiler, but I will mention that they have an important role to play. They have matured nicely and realistically. Rothgar, for one, is as charismatic as ever, but he is also slightly less intimidating and awe-inspiring, tamed as he is by marriage and impending parenthood. Old fans and new ones alike are sure to enjoy this excursion into his world.