The Painted Lady, with its touch of whimsical supernatural, is not going to be for everyone. Indeed, the first chapter or two is a bit of work. But the story picks up steam after that and the romance is quite a delight.
Kennard Cartland, the Duke of Caswell and Kasey to his friends, has a secret. He’s a closet portraitist, specializing in nudes of women that he paints from memory. Most are former mistresses, but one day Kasey is inspired to create his most stunning painting yet - a mysterious nude lady of exceptional beauty, so lifelike it seems she could step off the canvas. To his shock, she begins to speak to him. Well, not “speak” so much as “harangue”. The lady has some definite opinions on Kasey’s love life and string of mistresses, none of them positive.
Fearing for his sanity, Kasey questions his elderly aunts, who share his home with their obnoxious little dog, Ticky - a dog easily qualifying for Most in Need of Being Punted Through The Nearest Open Window. No, nobody in the recent family past has been unhinged. And Kasey’s younger brother Jason, while a bit of a scamp and a wastrel, is completely sane about it. However, a certain physician named Bannister had great success treating King George, though there was an unfortunate relapse and Bannister left the court. He now treats patients at a private estate. Kasey decides a consultation is in order.
Lilyanne Bannister is tired, tired, tired of assisting her uncle in his “cures” for spoiled, recalcitrant young ladies. She’s tired of sober gray gowns, bland food, and quiet. She’s tired of having no life to speak of. If it weren’t for her desperation to see her younger sister have a Season, Lilyanne would look for another position. When Kasey arrives, Lilyanne is assigned the job of entertaining His Grace with calm walk, quiet readings, and the like.
Kasey finds he’s drawn to this country mouse. Her wit, fine mind, and wide interests match his own, and they become fast friends. Friendship blossoms into something more. Yet they are worlds apart. When Kasey returns to London, he has some surprises awaiting him, and for the first time, he’ll have to decide what he truly wants in life.
The “painted lady speaks” plot element didn’t work all that well for me, partly because of her annoying use of artistic alliterations. Kasey is a “dumb-as-dirt daVinci”, “lecherous Leonardo” and the like. In fact, the entire catalog of notable artists prior to the Regency is pretty much covered. “Rattle-pate Rubens”. “Ramshackle, randy Rembrandt”. It was cute the first couple of times; by the sixth, it felt forced. As a device designed to make a duke question his sanity, the talking portrait worked, yet I never got the feeling it was anything more than just that - a way to get Kasey into the country.
The romance between Lilyanne and Kasey is, however, a delight. Stories based not on instant attraction, but rather on friendship turning to love are satisfying because there’s some depth and believability there. Lilyanne and Kasey are perfect foils for one another, and their mutual need for someone to understand them is poignant. Readers will be touched by Kasey’s gradual realization that this woman fills a lonely void in his life. Lilyanne’s hesitations feel authentic - he’s a duke, for heaven’s sake - and Kasey’s attempts to show her he’s just a man underneath are charming.
There’s a slight edge of suspense when Kasey’s former mistress goes missing and he’s a possible suspect, and the secondary characters finish rounding out the story. In particular, there’s Lady Edgecombe, whose philandering husband has banished her to Bannister’s estate rather than face her wrath over his infidelities. If she leaves, he’ll declare her insane. How she contributes to the story and her eventual revenge makes for satisfying reading, indeed. The dog never did get kicked through a window, but hey, you can’t have everything.
The Painted Lady is a fresh, joyous romance between two lonely characters who find their perfect match. Kasey and Lilyanne will leave you smiling.