The Chick: Lady Phaedra Northampton. When a young girl from her village goes missing in the big city, leaving her young child behind, Phaedra fears for her safety and is determined to reunite mother and child.
The Rub: All clues regarding the girl's whereabouts point to a disreputable brothel - and the only person who may be able to help her find answers is a dangerously sexy rake.
Dream Casting: Lisa Dillon.
The Dude: Tristan Talbot, Lord Avoncliffe. A jack of all trades, but master of none, he's abandoned his spying/mercenary past to nurture a reputation as a randy good-for-nothing - but his dying father's request brings him back into the field.
The Rub: In his quest to discover the secrets behind a murder and a shady brothel, he discovers that the supposedly virtuous Lady Phaedra may have a connection to them.
Dream Casting: Matthew Goode.
Phaedra: I'm here to look for some knick knacks!
Kemble, Disreputable Shop Owner: Buy something from my shop and witness a murder absolutely free!
Suspicious Russian: *stabbed*
Tristan's Dad: A suspicious Russian was murdered! I want you to find out why! Question the witnesses!
Phaedra: Double crap.
Tristan: You know more than you let on.
Phaedra: And you're too sexy for your own good!
Phaedra: I mean - what I meant to say - oh, triple crap.
Phaedra and Tristan: *SexyTimes*
Tristan: That was nice. I'm off to storm an Evil Russian Brothel!
Phaedra: I'm coming with!
Evil Russian Brothel: *defeated*
Tristan: Awesome! Let's get married!
Phaedra: No - I can't have children!
Tristan: Oh, that's easily fixed. I'll buy one for you! *does*
Romance Convention Checklist
1 Repressed Spinster with a Dark Past
1 Jolly Underestimated Prettyboy
1 Suspicious Russian
1 Evil Russian Brothel
1 Eviller Russian Spy-Whoremaster
1 Abandoned Baby
1 Runaway Mum
1 Supportive Half-Brother
1 Absent Ambiguously Gay Full Brother
1 Pair of Velvet Manacles
The Word: I'm a safe gal. I like consistency. When I read a book that's bad or mediocre, I like to think I'm smart for not picking up more of the author's books. But as I've repeatedly discovered, every author writes a bad book now and then and I seem to have an unfortunate affinity for finding their worse books first. This happened with Julie Anne Long, with Kate Noble, and now with Liz Carlyle. Yes, I did enjoy Never Deceive a Duke, but I figured that was the height of her prowess, especially after reading the disappointing Three Little Secrets. I still had Tempted All Night on my TBR, though.
Tempted All Night blew both those books clean out of the water. WOW. I will admit, it took me longer to read this book then her others - why? Because it turned out to be my absolute favourite type of romance, the dense, not-entirely-dark, drama-filled romances with secrets and plot. I do enjoy a frothy meringue romantic comedy now and then (from Julia Quinn, for example), but I've always preferred the devil's food cake of romances. The Laura Kinsales. The Jo Goodmans. And now, apparently, Liz Carlyle.
Lady Phaedra Northampton has kept herself separate from society. She wears drab, ill-fitting gowns. She refuses to attend balls or parties. Her featherbrained mother and younger sister gad about town preparing for the sister's coming-out, while Phaedra remains at home. And all of this is a conscious choice. Thanks to a horrific event in her past, Phaedra believes that she's too scarred to make anyone a respectable wife, and that her sexual desires are both wrong and obvious to any rake who cares to look, so she believes avoiding society is the best decision for everyone.
That's not to say she doesn't have passions beyond the sensual ones she represses with shame and guilt. Unbeknownst to her family, she's been secretly investigating the disappearance of Millie, a young servant from her village. Millie left behind her baby girl in order to seek brighter prospects in London and hasn't been seen since, and all signs point towards a brothel of spectacularly ill repute.
Despite the increasing danger of her inquiries, Phaedra refuses to go to her powerful and influential half-brother Lord Nash for help - because the father of Millie's child is none other than her absent, wastrel full-brother Tony. Thanks to what I believe were the events in Never Lie To a Lady (now on my TBR!) Lord Nash already stuck his neck out pretty damn far for Tony, and Phaedra's loathe to bring more of Tony's fuck-ups to Nash's door.
Meanwhile, Tristan Talbot is literally dragged from the bed of a beautiful married woman to attend to his dying politician father, Lord Hauxton. An anonymous Russian gent was stabbed in the street in broad daylight, but Hauxton believes he may have had ties to a Russian spy operating out of a brothel that caters to the darker side of sexual desires. Hauxton needs someone he can trust to investigate - so who better than the disreputable son who's practically made a career out of being a horny layabout with more beauty than brains?
Tristan's first job is to question the two well-bred ladies who witnessed the murder - one of whom is none other than Lady Phaedra. Tristan suspects that Phaedra isn't as uninvolved as she lets on, and tries to charm her with his famous wiles, and both are surprised by how strongly she responds.
What I loved about this pairing is the complexity of our protagonists. Phaedra may be riddled with insecurities that are not her own doing, but she's still a sympathetic and independent character. She reminds me of Charlotte from Loretta Chase's Not Quite a Lady, actually: both heroines were taken advantage of when they were too young to know better, and have spent their lives relying only upon themselves because they believe they must keep the truth about their pasts a secret even from their family in order to protect them from scandal.
Tristan is just as interesting, however. He's not the disgruntled, cynical, jaded rake who hates his father, a staple of the historical romance. He's rather that same cliche, taken apart, and embroidered with realistic layers. He does like sex, rather a lot (he propositions Phaedra no fewer than three times in the novel, believing she's a different woman each time), but he's not a terrible misogynistic ass about it. While he does have a title, he refuses to answer to it (claiming Avoncliffe sounds like something from a bad romance - a dig at Avon Publishing?), introducing himself simply as Mr. Talbot.
His sense of self-worth and his relationship with his father are written in a similarly unorthodox manner. The product of an impulsive, improvident marriage that ultimately crippled his ambitious father's political career, Tristan doesn't hate his father (nor vice versa), but there is always this looming gulf between them, the inescapable fact that neither is what the other wanted, and that it's now far too late to change anything. I can't tell you how much I appreciated that the father wasn't turned into a one-dimensional clown of a villain (especially just after reading It's In His Kiss).
As well, the murder-suspense element of the plot works just fine - it doesn't suck the air from the romance, it's neither stupid nor overly complicated, and it also keeps the pacing moving forward at a nice clip. Liz Carlyle never forgets that the suspense is meant to further the romance, to throw the characters together and force them to reevaluate their emotional boundaries, not the other way around.
Most important is how wonderfully and richly the romance between Tristan and Phaedra develops - between the man who's cultivated a wastrel reputation to mirror his own dissatisfaction with himself, and the woman who's kept herself isolated to shield her secrets. Their relationship develops slowly, and many issues (notably Tristan's growing emotional dependence on her, and Phaedra's fear of desire) must first be explored and overcome. The romance itself is nothing special - the vibrant and multifaceted characters are what make it special and poignant. Yes, Phaedra learns to get her groove on, and Tristan learns to love himself as he loves Phaedra, but by being complex, three-dimensional characters dealing with real problems, their development is subsequently richer and more meaningful.
I'll definitely be reading more of Liz Carlyle from now on.