Bound by a Scandalous Secret
Bound by a Scandalous Secret is the third book in Diane Gaston’s current series, The Scandalous Summerfields. I haven’t read either of the previous entries, but this one works perfectly well as a standalone. The Summerfield siblings – three sisters and their half-brother – have been tainted by their late father’s reputation as a drunkard and libertine and the scandal that arose as the result of their mother running off with her lover. The first two books saw middle sister, Tess, and brother Edmund get their respective HEAs, and now it’s the turn of the youngest sister, Genna, a vivacious young woman who breezes through life –somewhat naïvely, it has to be said – and puts on a cheerful face regardless of the disappointments she has suffered.
The oldest Summerfield sister, Lorene (whose story is up next) married the much older, disagreeable but wealthy Lord Tinmore, in order to save her siblings from having to marry for money. She and Genna now reside at Tinmore Hall, where Tinmore makes life thoroughly unpleasant through his constant criticism of Lorene and his obvious belief that neither young woman is capable of exhibiting proper behaviour.
One December day, Genna is out sketching their old home of Summerfield Hall when a gentlemen riding across the fields stops and introduces himself simply as Rossmore. He is staying at the Hall for the Christmas period with his friend, Lord Penford, the son of the distant cousin who inherited the title and property on the death of Genna’s father. Rossmore is handsome, charming and easy to talk to, and, to Genna’s surprise, doesn’t seem to mind her own particular brand of animated conversation.
Ross is fascinated by Genna’s openness and her eagerness to learn new things. They meet a few more times during his stay, and in the course of conversation, he discovers that Genna’s real passion is art, and that her ambition is to make a living as an artist. They enjoy each other’s company and strike up a genuine friendship which is cut short when Lord Penford departs unexpectedly for London and his friend accompanies him.
Some months later, Genna and Ross meet again, and very quickly rediscover their easy friendship. He decides that he wants to help her to realise her dream of becoming an artist, but they are both well aware that if they start spending a lot of time together, tongues will wag. So Ross – whose father, the Duke of Kessington, has been pestering him to get married and produce an heir – suggests to Genna that they become betrothed; that way, his step-mother will stop pushing him towards eligible young ladies, and he and Genna will be able to spend time together without causing gossip. Once Genna reaches twenty-one in October, she will be able to do as she wishes without reference to Tinmore, at which time she can cry off and she and Ross can go their separate ways. Genna agrees to the idea, with just the smallest pang of guilt over the fact that she will be deceiving her sister.
Ross and Genna are engaging characters but they do come across as rather immature, and it’s difficult to believe that Ross could be so naïve as to believe that a young woman, no matter how talented, would find it easy to make a career as an artist in 1815. That said, Ms. Gaston does a good job of showing why Ross and Genna are the way they are; Ross’s mother was an outgoing, vivacious woman who was slowly stifled by her marriage to his politically motivated father, hence his determination to give Genna the freedom to be herself that his mother never enjoyed and his belief that marriage will rob her of her dream. And Genna has the daily reminder of Lorene’s unhappy marriage and the knowledge of their parents’ miserable union to caution her against entering into the married state.
That, in essence, is the extent of the conflict in the story, and it’s somewhat weak because there’s never any question that Ross and Genna are perfect for each other. The joy he gains from every new experience he offers her is sweet to see, whether it’s from taking her to see the Elgin Marbles or watching an artist at work; and in Ross, Genna has finally found someone who understands and accepts her, who doesn’t talk down to her or belittle her ambitions. But ultimately, I felt I was watching the growth of a strong friendship rather than a romance, because while they are great together, there’s not much romantic chemistry there. It’s also a bit of a stretch to believe in that Genna could support herself by working as an artist when she is really little more than a gifted amateur.
Bound by a Scandalous Secret is enjoyable enough, but there are some good ideas that aren’t followed up on (such as Ross’s secret philanthropy) and I was more intrigued by the potential relationship between Lorene and Lord Penfold than by that between Ross and Genna. Penfold is an intriguing character with a tragic past – he lost his entire family in a recent fire and is struggling to adjust to life without them. He is drawn to Lorene and sees how unhappy she is, but knows he can do nothing to help. He shows her a few small kindnesses, but can’t do more for fear of heaping yet more scandal upon her name and earning her the censure of her husband. The author establishes a clear connection between them, which I hope will be built upon in the next book. But Ross and Genna’s romance suffers by comparison – it’s never a good thing when a secondary couple eclipses the hero and heroine in a romance novel.
If you’ve been following the series, then you might want to pick up Bound by a Scandalous Secret for completeness, but I’ve read better by this author and can’t give it a ringing endorsement. I was, however, sufficiently intrigued by Lorene and Penford to want to read the next in the series which I believe will be coming out next Spring.