|Stephanie Laurens is back at the Bastion Club and in great form with the story of Jack Warnefleet and Clarice Altwood. There is romance, sexual attraction and interaction and an intriguing mystery that also sets up the next Bastion novel, which will not be released until Fall, 2006. This seems a long time to wait for a conclusion, but A Fine Passion is still a very fulfilling novel on its own.
Jack is a baron who has inherited properties from his own father and several aunts. They are spread all over England. He has returned from his work as a spy where his expertise allowed him to blend in and keep track of Napoleon, with his most essential information involving Napoleon’s escape from Elba. Now back in London, Jack is totally disgusted with the inanity of the young girls and their marriage-seeking mamas. Despite his need to stay in London to attend to his estates, he heads for home after a close call with one particularly inventive ploy at getting him to the altar.
Jack’s home is Avening Manor in the Glouchestershire area. Avening holds many fond memories but it has been years since he has been there. He left the estate in the capable hands of his steward, Griggs, who much to Jack’s surprise has aged in the last 10 years. Jack also finds that his friend James Altwood, a deacon who researches military history, has a young cousin living with him. Said cousin is Clarice. Clarice is the daughter of an earl, who disowned her when she refused to marry an aging suitor when they were caught in a compromising situation. The situation was a result of the machinations of Clarice’s stepmother, a jealous shrew.
Clarice is living in the village of Avening and because of her intelligence and take charge style has also helped to “run” the village, serving as a referee with local ladies, a confidant for many, and at times, as the lady of the manor would act if there was a lady.
Jack and Clarice meet when they both come across a young man underneath a carriage. Clarice saw another carriage run him off the road and was sure the driver meant harm to the injured gentleman. They take him to the manor and soon discover a plot accusing James of treason. This plot is coupled with some of the spy activity that Jack was involved in and soon everyone is looking for a mysterious “last spy.” The search involves other members of the Bastion Club and Jack’s superior only known as Dalziel.
But the real story is that of the romance between Jack and Clarice. These two well-matched individuals find their soul mate in each other. The story is driven by their search and their discoveries about themselves and each other. Clarice must confront her demons from the scandal, including reuniting with her brothers and confronting her stepmother. She is independent and at times willful, but her intelligence and innate goodness keep her from being a caricature. Jack too, is a strong hero. He is willful and intelligent yet has enough gentlemen in him to smooth the rough edges of his solitary existence. Jack must determine how he wants his life to be – one shared with a strong willed woman who is his match or a lonely existence without her. He makes that choice easily, and then must find a way to convince Clarice when he realizes he cannot run roughshod over her without destroying the essence of who she is.
There is sexual passion that is purely Laurens and there is more, that sharing of experiences and friendship that makes up the best type of relationships. These two see what the other doesn’t and make a great partnership when they work together. They present the other with their vulnerabilities and trust that they other will keep their secrets safe. The relationship is the best part of the tale.
The plot against James is handled but the ultimate mystery of Dalziel and the spy is left unresolved. While setting the stage for the next edition, it did leave me feeling a bit disappointed.
This is one of the better entries of the Bastion Club series and I highly recommend it. A Fine Passion comes very close to keeper status.