|While much more satisfactory than some of her more recent contemporary work, Johnson’s second book in her historical Darley series suffers from weak characterization and a plot that never gels into a cohesive hole.
Murray “Duff” D’Abernon is the thirteenth Marquis of Darley and a changed man thanks to the Battle of Waterloo. He has been living in relative seclusion in his family’s hunting lodge, with his worried family vacationing near by. They fear Duff is changed forever, his depression and “spells” leaving him a shell of the once vibrant young man he once was.
Annabelle Foster was the toast of the London stage before her sister’s death sent her scurrying home to the country to tend to her newborn niece. Annabelle is also determined to avoid the distasteful Earl of Walingame, who was not above blackmail to secure Annabelle as his paramour. Having paid him off (so she thinks), Annabelle’s only concern is her niece, Cricket, and her mother, who has not been right since Annabelle’s sister died tragically due to abuse and neglect by her husband’s family.
Annabelle and Duff cross paths at a horse fair and Duff is immediately enchanted. So enchanted in fact that his post-traumatic stress disorder practically disappears overnight! He sets about wooing Annabelle with his incredible charm – but the woman is decidedly independent and is determined to keep him at a distance.
The characters have their moments, and are both likeable and charming. However, the author introduces compelling conflict for them then drops it like a lead balloon. In particular, Duff’s miraculous recovery from the ill effects of Waterloo is incredibly unbelievable. Outside of a couple of mild spells that leave him zoned out, he’s charming, witty and very determined in wooing Annabelle. He hardly acts like a man who has been walking around depressed and shocked for over a year!
Annabelle is described as independent, intelligent and forthright. Unfortunately she is given very little to do in this story except stand around, look pretty, run away, and wait to be rescued. Given Walingame’s intentions, plus her dead sister’s in-laws – Annabelle needs a lot of rescuing. Understandably women of this time period did have to rely on a man’s protection for a great many things, but Annabelle doesn’t even play a cursory role in rescuing herself. One wonders what she would have done had Duff not come along. Most likely spent her life moving her family from one backwater town to the next.
This reviewer feels that the writing here is an improvement over Johnson’s more recent efforts. Despite a tendency to tell instead of show, this book feels more fleshed out. The author has also toned down her sex scenes, which is rather interesting. Still steamy to a certain extent, but the R rating was granted more for the occasional use of rougher language than exuberant love making.
While a step in the right direction, some of the character motivation and the dumping of conflict on the last 100 pages makes this is an uneven read. Readers who enjoyed the first book in the series, When You Love Someone, about Duff’s parents might enjoy this return visit since they play a healthy role in the latter half of the novel. Having reviewed Johnson’s contemporary work in the past, I find this historical effort well above those titles, and highly readable in comparison. That said it’s still not quite enough.