Harlequin Historical, $6.50, ISBN 978-0-373-29858-7
Historical Romance, 2015
Mary Manning is raised to be the perfect diplomat’s daughter and wife. She is good at keeping a pleasant expression even when she’s feeling anything but sanguine, she has poise, and she knows how to maintain conversations and such. Her father is one of the most respected diplomats in England, having been a key player in England’s negotiations with her neighbors in a time when Napoleon Bonaparte is menacing everyone, and she understands that her father will be pleased if she marries Henry Barrett, an ambitious diplomat who has started working closely with her father. However, her heart beats a little faster for Henry’s brother, Sebastian, who is not only handsome and dashing, but also a celebrated war hero. When she gives in to her impulses and kisses Sebastian one evening, she discovers in a most humiliating manner that he has wagered with his friends that he could steal a kiss from her, and she has just helped him win the wager.
Fortunately, she doesn’t have to dwell on her hurt feelings much as her father is assigned to Portugal that very night itself, and they have to pack and set sailing ASAP. Diplomatic emergency, you see, so things cannot wait. Poor contrite Sebastian never has a chance to apologize until two years later. Henry has passed away, and Sebastian has stepped in to play his part in continuing the family tradition of dabbling in diplomacy. He is assigned to Lisbon, to be part of the entourage to convince the ruler and his queen to flee the country for Brazil, before Napoleon and the local rebels close in for the kill. Mary and her father are still in Lisbon, of course, so their paths cross again. Can Sebastian convince her that he is not the kind of man she thinks he is?
The Demure Miss Manning starts out a solid four-oogie read, although there are many instances when I’m convinced that this is a five-oogie read. Mary is an exquisite heroine, at first, as she seems smart and capable, with realistic emotions bubbling underneath her calm exterior. Sebastian is in many ways akin to those heroes by Carla Kelly – he is generally a good man, who has become jaded and cynical from his experiences during the war, and he also has a bit of a survivor’s guilt. The fact that he is constantly hailed a hero and is requested to share his wartime experiences also make him feel worse all over, as he feels that his inner demons are nothing like the glamorous tales of courage and bravery that his new fans want to hear over and over. It is a great slip of common sense for him to accept that wager, and he deeply regrets the hurt he has caused Mary.
Mary and Sebastian first meet and connect in a way that feels real, sweet, and tender all at once. They are two lonely people surrounded by others who believe that they know who the real Mary or Sebastian is, and each recognizes the other as some kind of kindred spirit. To Sebastian, that kiss is the kiss – the wager never even crosses his mind until his buddies catch him and Mary in action.
The story is still solid when the characters are briefly separated. The author does an incredible job describing the mounting tension in Lisbon as the British politicians scramble to convince the indecisive and fickle Prince Regent Dom Joao to seek safety abroad. Then there is a pitched fear and mounting hysteria at the docks as Mary tries to reach the ship that will take her out of Lisbon to safety. It is all good, and things look to be better when Sebastian and Mary are reunited.
And then things fall apart after that moment, like a wooden cottage that happens to be in the path of a tornado. Mary begins to look horribly self-absorbed and silly when, surrounded by all kinds of issues and things that are far bigger than her feelings for Sebastian, all she dwells on is her feelings for that man. Worse, Sebastian starts playing weird games, saying vaguely that she is in danger but never specifying what kind of danger that is. As you can probably imagine, she ends up getting into trouble anyway, thanks to Sebastian’s unwillingness to clue her in on what exactly she has to watch out for. Why does he do this? The only reason I can think of is that this is the author’s attempt to create some tension and suspense in the story, even if this regresses Sebastian’s character considerably. Mary and Sebastian in the later half or so of this book are petty, silly, and often childish – very different from the couple that graced the first half of the book.
I don’t know what happened to cause the two characters to mutate to this extent, but I do know that my heart breaks for the marvelous story that this one would have been if the author had managed to maintain the momentum she had going earlier. Really, the second half is awful compared to the first half, and this book is such a wasted opportunity that I want to scream.
The first half of The Demure Miss Manning is four-oogie material, the second half two-oogie. So I guess the average three-oogie rating for this book would be fair enough. Seriously, though, what a waste.