Mills & Boon, £4.99, ISBN 978-0-263-92571-5
Historical Romance, 2017
Bound by Their Secret Passion has two functions: to be a romance story and also be the final book in Diane Gaston’s The Scandalous Summerfields series. I feel that it can stand alone quite well, but the established relationships between the cast – yes, even the hero Dell Summerfield, the Earl of Penford, and the heroine Lorene Summerfield (no, they are not that closely related, so don’t worry) – may make the whole ride a bumpy one for someone unfamiliar with the author’s previous books.
In fact, this one is an interesting case of what shouldn’t work well on paper, but ends up doing most things right instead. Normally, books at the tail end of the series would be choked to the gills with too many characters all clamoring to let readers know that their books are out there for purchase, and these secondary characters coddle the main couple to the point that all suspense is killed by this too-obvious safety network. This is indeed the case with this story, but somehow, everything turns out pretty good in the end. Fascinating, really.
Lorene married a much older man after their mother decamped with her lover and left Lorene and her siblings to fend for themselves. Her husband, the Earl of Tinmore, offers security and financial stability to her siblings, but it comes at a cost to her: her husband is a cruel control freak, and our heroine suffered the brunt of his ill moods. He forbids her to see her family, but in that instance she is defiant. With the help of Dell, she manages to secure his invitations to social functions in which she can meet her siblings (all of whom have married well by now). Again, this one has a cost: it’s not long before her husband suspects that Lorene and Dell are doing more than just being pleasant to one another at various ballrooms.
Tinmore is not entirely wrong: Lorene has long harbored a crush on the handsome, gallant Dell, but it’s an affection that she keeps locked away in her heart. No one will ever know, she tells herself. She’s about to be proven wrong, alas. When this story opens, Lorene returns home from visiting her family to be greeted by her furious husband, who accuses her of cheating on him with Dell. Dell intervenes, and Tinmore tries to strike him down with his cane as a result. And then, oops, Tinmore falls down the stairs and now he’s dead. Now that is a scandal for everyone to talk about.
What happens next is not courtroom drama, though. Oh come on, the Earl of Penford, to be accused of murder like a common nobody, with only a butler being the chief instigator? Do you actually think Dell will be found guilty? This development serves to free up Lenore to be with Dell, and the main drama in the story revolves around several key elements. One, Dell lost his family in a fire, and he is still haunted by the tragedy. Thus, he is not ready to open up his heart to anyone again – or so he thinks. Two, Lorene has long played the martyr for her family, and sometimes she wonders whether she knows how to be anything else. She is free, and is wealthy to boot… but she doesn’t know what to do with her life. But still, baby steps. Three, Lorene’s mother and her lover show up again, sending her and her siblings into turmoil. Her mother is still the self absorbed woman who puts her own heart first over everything else, but maybe, there is a chance for them to reconcile and be a family again. Maybe. Four, Dell wants to keep his family tradition alive by being a politician, crusading against injustice and what not, and to succeed, he needs a respectable wife, not a Summerfield tainted with scandal.
I know, that’s a lot, but everything works here. This story is not structured like a typical romance novel – it takes place over quite a long period of time, for one – which turns out to be a virtue as this non-typical structure allows Lorene and Dell to explore their developing affections in a more believable pace. There is plenty of time and opportunity for Lorene to find herself again as well, and as a result, the romance feels so much sweeter and more real as a result. Both characters are hard to be pigeon-holed into archetypes, I feel, because there are layers to them, and to just call them “widowed responsible eldest sister” and “ambitious yet noble earl” will do them a big disservice. I also really like how the author doesn’t make it seem like Dell and Lorene must marry – and they don’t, actually – but instead, in the end, they marry because they want to.
Also, our couple interact with other secondary characters in ways that feel natural and unforced. Lorene’s siblings and their spouses show up as part of the family, rather than contrived sequel baits, and their interactions with Lorene and Dell only make our couple and their relationship feel more solid. Even the mother turns out to be a pleasant surprise: she’s a deeply flawed creature with issues, but at the same time, it’s also clear that she is not a lost cause. The only cartoon character here is the bitter butler of the now dead Earl of Tinmore that harbors a grudge, but I suppose I can make allowance for one such one-dimensional character.
If this story has an issue, it’s that I feel that it needs to be longer. The last few chapters feel rather rushed compared to the chapters in the earlier parts of the book, maybe because the author is running out of words and has to wrap things up chop chop.
Still, Bound by Their Secret Passion, completely inaccurate title aside, has been an unexpectedly sweet and romantic read. I don’t know this people too well, having followed the author’s works only quite recently, but by the last page, I’m actually reluctant to say goodbye to them!