2001 reissue of 2000 release, European Historical Romance (Regency England)
Delacorte, $6.99, 384 pages, Amazon ASIN 0440226015 Part of a series
"What's in a name?" asked Shakespeare. A lot, as it turns out. What we call each other, what we allow others to call us, sets the parameters of our relationships. But sometimes a relationship bursts past the limits of names and descriptions, and redefines the people involved. This is the heart of the matter in More Than a Mistress, and Mary Balogh's legion of fans will be delighted with the story of a couple who discover that love has very little to do with titles and labels.
Down-on-her-luck seamstress Jane Ingleby disrupts an early-morning duel in Hyde Park, causing Jocelyn Dudley, the arrogant Duke of Tresham, to take a bullet in his leg. When her employer mockingly informs her that the only way she'll get her job back is with a handwritten note from the Duke confirming the story, Jane sets off for Tresham's Mayfair mansion. Furious to begin with, and amazed that the impudent woman has the nerve to show her face to him again, Jocelyn refuses Jane's demand and insists moreover that the only fitting punishment for her is to serve as his nurse during his three-week convalescence. Badly in need of money, Jane agrees.
More than employment, she needs a place to hide. She's not the product of an orphanage, as she's led Jocelyn to believe; she's a gently bred young lady, forced into a desperate situation. A gentleman was attempting to assault her, and she coshed him over the head, sending him into a coma. Now Jane thinks the man is dead, and she's on the lam from his father, who happens to be her uncle and guardian.
As her three-week stint as nurse and companion comes to a close, Jane realizes she doesn't want to leave Dudley House, and her reluctance isn't entirely due to her physical safety. In a moment of mutual vulnerability, Jocelyn and Jane acknowledge and bend to the passion between them. Jocelyn offers Jane carte blanche, and her own house and servants, if she'll become his mistress. Right from the start, though, they both realize there's more - much more - to their relationship than just a man and his mistress.
These two are a pair of dynamic protagonists. Jocelyn has stifled his need for intimacy for so long that he doesn't recognize it at first, and acts like a typical alpha-male, overbearing and arrogant. There's a touching moment when he instructs Jane to call him by his first name, telling her no one else ever has, in his whole life. Jane understands what a precious gift of trust he's giving her and cherishes it. She builds a home out of the love-nest he's settled her into, the first home Jocelyn's ever really known. He finds himself entrusting her with the deepest secret of his heart, wishing she would do the same, for by now he knows she's holding something back.
Jane is definitely not a milk-and-water miss; she doesn't back down from any of Jocelyn's attempts to intimidate her, and she goes into their arrangement with eyes wide open, throwing away any chance she might have for respectability in the future, in order to ensure her present. Which doesn't mean she's stupid about it: she actually negotiates terms with Jocelyn and makes him sign a contract. This is a woman who knows how to take care of herself. Isn't that how she got into trouble in the first place? I had a bit of a problem buying into the storyline that a young lady would throw over her upbringing to become a man's mistress, but not enough to keep me from enjoying it.
No sagging middle in this book; events zip along, between the love story and Jane's efforts to remain undiscovered by her uncle. It helps that there's a nice subplot concerning the lengths some people are willing to travel to get back at Jocelyn for impugning their family's honor, and the mystery of who would try to sabotage a curricle race. The dialogue is instrumental in moving the action forward, so you're not just getting a rehash of the characters' thoughts coming out of their mouths. And the sexual tension is very effective, too. Jocelyn and Jane share one of the most intense and emotion-packed first kisses I've read in a long time; what Balogh can insinuate in a couple of phrases, other authors spend page after torrid page trying to describe. Her spare, pale lavender prose is a welcome change from purple excess, and more effective.
The cast of supporting characters is well done, especially Jocelyn's flighty sister and rakehell younger brother, and the duke's group of friends provides plenty of potential-hero material. While I wasn't completely won over by the storyline involving Jane's past, the rest of the book amply compensated for that minor flaw. There's so much emotional intensity that I was able to overlook it. If you're a Balogh fan, I think you'll enjoy More Than a Mistress immensely. If you've never read one of her books, what are you waiting for? This is a terrific place to start.
-- Nora Armstrong
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