Some years ago I read and enjoyed a series of historical novels based around a fictional family of siblings called the Mallorens. With the fifth novel dealing with the oldest brother, the Marquis of Rothgar, I assumed the series had finished but subsequently discovered quite recently that the author has since resurrected the family and the series continues, this time using members of the extended Malloren tribe as the main protagonists and the original family members being relegated to secondary character status and, in some cases, merely having walk on parts.
A Lady's Secret is the eighth book in the Malloren series and features two main protagonists who initially seem to have little or no connection to the Malloren family.
Robin Fitzvitry, Earl of Huntersdown is highly amused to come across a young nun in a French inn yard who is using the most inappropriate language for a member of a religious order. Robin is returning to England and intrigued by the mysterious Sister Immaculata, he agrees to help her journey to England. Sister Immaculata is, as Robin suspects, not a nun but is a young Italian woman endeavouring to evade her enemies who are in hot pursuit in order reach England where she hopes to find her natural father, a man who doesn't even know of her existence. She fully intends to use the foppish and aristocratic Englishman to achieve her goal of reaching English soil where she will escape him with her virtue and her secrets safe. Things do not go quite as she planned.
Having enjoyed the original Malloren series, I was pleased to discover that the author, Jo Beverley, had decided to extend the series to encompass the Malloren cousins and other members of the extended family.
This novel is very much along the lines of a Georgette Heyer novel with two delightfully engaging main protagonists both determined to outwit the other. Set in the mid-eighteenth century some decades before France erupted into bloody revolution, it's very much a light hearted romp but nevertheless is well researched and has an excellent sense of time and place. Most of the historical romance novels currently on offer, sadly tend to be the product of American authors and as such are lacking in verisimilitude. Although Jo Beverley now lives on the North American continent, she's British by birth and she therefore has a good deal of knowledge of both the British language and our cultural and historical heritage, all of which are combined here into a highly entertaining story.
Robin is a quite an unusual male lead, certainly for a modern-day historical romance. To begin with, he isn't a rampantly alpha male which, personally, I found to be a refreshing change. Here is a man who relies far more on his brain than on his braun. On the surface he appears to be rather effete and foppish, although maybe eighteenth century male garb which included lots of lace and brocades and the like, made most aristocratic men appear less than masculine anyway. To add to this Robin has acquired a papillon dog, quite a character in herself, but a breed which doesn't exactly fit with the more macho kind of man even two hundred or so years ago. Beneath the surface of this expensively attired, fun loving young aristocrat, however, is a red blooded rake who has every intention of seducing Sister Immaculata at some stage on their journey across the Channel. To that end, he's been less than honest with her about himself.
Our erstwhile nun is, in fact, a young Italian girl, Petra d'Averio with plenty of secrets of her own. Though Petra has, indeed, spent much of her time in a nunnery, she has certainly never taken the veil. Petra is, in fact, not quite pure! When their mother died recently, her brother discovered that Petra was not their father's natural child and he intends to wash his hands of her and allow a local aristocrat to take her as his mistress. Petra had been in love with the Conte di Purieri but when she discovers he does not intend to marry her, she has enough self-respect to repulse his demands and armed with the name of her father, sets out on her journey across Europe to find him. She's made it as far as Normandy within striking distance of the French coast and now sees Robin as the means of making it to England undetected by the cruel Varzi who is pursuing her on behalf of his Italian master.
As a good deal of the action takes place during the journey, this falls into the category of a 'road' novel and I certainly enjoyed this first part of the story very much but this did result in the book being rather uneven in its pace. All the adventures take place in the first two thirds of the novel so that when Petra reaches her destination and the final scenes of her story are played out, the pace has slowed down dramatically and I began to lose interest in the story because it was already evident what the outcome would be.
As for the secondary characters, although some of them would definitely be regarded as stereotypical, especially the evil Varzi who has chased Petra all across Europe, in the main they were well rounded and believable. It was also a pleasure to become reacquainted with some members of the Malloren family. Jo Beverley has allowed them to develop over the years into older, wiser people but still with elements of their earlier character in place so that they were still recognisable.
At the beginning of this review I likened this book to a Georgette Heyer novel and, indeed, it has many of the hallmarks of one of her excellent Regency romances. This novel, however, falls somewhat short in comparison to one of those masterpieces. Nevertheless, it's an enjoyable story with engaging lead characters and a cute dog and one, moreover, which manages to intertwine themes from the earlier books in the series and which has a more than satisfactory ending. It isn't perfect by any means but it's certainly more than OK.
Used copies can be picked up from 1p plus postage or in Kindle format for £4.48.