Did you ever wonder what life might be like for the sister
of a rake? That's what Lady Angeline Dudley is -- the sister of not one but two handsome, charming, and utterly incorrigible rakehells, the Duke of Tresham and Lord Ferdinand Dudley. Moreover, her late parents were famous for their many indiscreet affairs, and she has decided never to marry a man who is anything like her brothers or father.
Lady Angeline is on her way to London for her first season and is to meet up with her elder brother at a coaching inn in Reading. When she finds herself alone in the inn's tavern and is approached by a strange man, another stranger comes to her defense. He leaves without introducing himself, and Lady Angeline falls for him on the spot.
How could one not fall instantly in love with such a man, Angeline asked herself as she stared at the door after they had both left. In a few short minutes he had shown himself to be her ideal of manhood. Of gentlemanhood. He seemed perfectly content and comfortable with his ordinariness. He seemed not to feel the need to posture and prove his masculinity at every turn, preferably with his fists, as most men did in Angeline’s admittedly rather limited experience. He was, in fact, more than ordinary. He was an extraordinary man. And she had fallen head over ears in love with him. Indeed, she was going to marry him—despite the fact that she would probably never see him again.
Her savior is Edward Ailsbury, the new Earl of Heywood, who has succeeded to the title after his brother's death in a curricle race against said Duke of Tresham. Of course, he and Angeline are destined to meet again and again, and while she falls ever deeper in love he finds her to be all that is improper and unappealing in a lady. While his many female relatives urge him to court Lady Angeline, the season's most eligible young lady, he has determined to marry Eunice Goddard, the shy, bookish daughter of his favorite Cambridge don. They had agreed years earlier to marry at some point in the future, and Edward looks forward to a very proper future with Eunice.
As the season progresses, Edward finds himself repeatedly in the company of Lady Angeline and feels a reluctant attraction to her. His determination to marry Eunice, however, does not wane, although Eunice believes that he must marry higher in society now that he is an earl. She rejects Edward's proposal and urges him to marry Lady Angeline. But when he proposes to Lady Angeline, she rejects him as well, because he does not love her. Indeed, he doesn't really believe in romantic love.
Edward is perplexed, but like the true gentleman that he is, he carries on with his duty to find a suitable wife and set up his nursery. I won't go any further with the plot so as not to spoil the surprising developments. Suffice it to say that the last third of the book is romantic and funny at the same time and reminded me of something Georgette Heyer would have concocted (only a little steamier).
Mary Balogh does an excellent job of creating many secondary characters and weaving their stories into the main plotline. And while Lady Angeline is a singular young lady -- tall, dark, not demure, and wearer of loud, attention-getting bonnets -- it is Edward who is Balogh's most original creation. He is nothing like the standard HR hero. He is not tall and broad-shouldered. He doesn't cast smouldering looks at ladies. He doesn't gamble or drink to excess. He's never fought a duel or placed a wager at White's. He doesn't have a mistress, nor does his mighty wang spring to attention at the sight of every desirable woman. His father and brother were careless, self-centered men, but Edward bears few inner scars and is certainly not "tortured."
What I found most fascinating was Angeline's romantic dreams of her perfect man -- so unlike the typical HR hero:
I have sworn and sworn that I will not marry a rake, even if it means marrying a dull man instead. Better to be dull than to be so unhappy that one is forced to take lovers. * * *
I did not know for sure until then that there were gentlemen like you. I had experience only with gentlemen like my father and my brothers and their friends. I did not want to marry anyone like them, for whoever I chose would not remain faithful for long, and how can there be marriage and parenthood and contentment and friendship and happiness and growing old together unless there is fidelity? * * *
I want you just as you are. I want you to live your dull, blameless life of duty and responsibility. I want you to be a very proper, perhaps even stern husband. I want you to make me feel you care. I want you to be a father who spends more time than is fashionable with his children.
It is not unusual in HR to see the rake, reformed by marriage, become like the man Lady Angeline describes, but typically the heroine is simply hoping
that life will turn out that way. In The Secret Mistress (and the title won't be explained until the very end), Angeline is determined to rely on something other than hope; she will control her own destiny. And Edward will learn that his destiny is not nearly so dull after all.