Tempting the Earl
Tempting the Earl is the third book in Rachael Miles’ Muses Salon series, and even though I was a little disappointed in the previous one (Chasing the Heiress) I wanted to read this because it makes use of one of my favourite tropes – the estranged couple who has to learn how to be married again. Or, as in this case, learn to be together full-stop, given that they have spent the six years of their marriage living apart. This aspect of the story is handled fairly well, but, as I found to be the case with the previous books, once the author starts to broaden her canvas and pick up some of the threads laid down in those earlier stories, things become far too busy and the romance gets sidelined.
We’ve met Harrison Levesford, Earl of Walgrave in the earlier books, as a friend and fellow Home Office agent of the two Sommerville brothers – Aidan and Colin – who were the heroes of those stories. Like them, Walgrave is a spy, dedicated to keeping his country safe, but he is also an active and highly respected Member of Parliament, an exceptional orator and a man widely tipped for high political office. What very few people know is that he has a wife living at his country estate with whom he has not communicated directly for the past six years. Forced into a marriage he most emphatically did not want, Walgrave joined the Navy a few short weeks after the wedding and has not returned home since.
His father insisted that he had chosen Harrison a wife perfectly suited to him, which his son interpreted as meaning a woman who was practical, demure and ultimately dull. Olivia Fallon fulfilled the first two of those expectations, so the intensity of Harrison’s attraction to her was both unexpected and very welcome, as he found his modest wife to be surprisingly passionate in bed. Even so, he went to sea, leaving the very capable Olivia to oversee his estate, not even taking the trouble to let her know when he returned to England and took up his position at the Home Office.
We learn these facts about Walgrave and Olivia’s past as the story progresses and through a few flashbacks, rather than as a prologue or first chapter, and the gradual unfolding of their history is well done. Their reunion is prompted by Olivia’s demand for a separation based on the fact that the marriage was not actually legal. Walgrave has been quite happy with the status quo, so the request unsettles him and he makes his way home to try to find out what has prompted her request after six years of what he had believed was a convenient arrangement for them both.
Olivia is an orphan whose father seems to have been involved in some very suspicious dealings. He disappeared when she was about five years old, and she was taken in by Sir Roderick Walgrave, Harrison’s father (and I stopped here to wonder a) how Walgrave is an earl while his father was only a knight and b) why Sir Roderick’s last name is Walgrave and not Levesford) and sent to Miss Finch’s School for Exceptional Girls. Olivia agreed to the marriage for a number of reasons, not least of which was her great affection for and gratitude towards Sir Roderick for everything he did for her and because it was one way of keeping herself safe and hidden away from those who had been her father’s associates. She came to love her handsome young husband in the short time they spent together and had hoped that he would come to love her, too, but his abrupt departure and subsequent failure to inform her of his return proved to her that she meant nothing to him.
Had Walgrave remained and taken time to come to know the woman he’d married, he would have learned that she was much more than the quiet country mouse he had assumed her to be. When we first meet Olivia, she is hurrying through the London streets looking desperately for somewhere to hide from a man she suspects is following her. We learn that she is the writer of a popular newspaper column under the pseudonym of An Honourable Gentleman in which she regularly rails against social injustice and advocates reform. And not only that, but like her estranged husband, Olivia is a government agent, currently engaged in trying to root out the traitors who are using the periodical press to convey state secrets to the enemy.
So far, so good. We’ve got a Regency Era Mr. and Mrs. Smith on our hands, and I anticipated a bit of a cat-and-mouse game as Olivia sought to evade exposure while she and her husband rekindled their earlier passion and fell in love all over again. That – with a few added elements of intrigue and suspense – would have been enough to sustain the story, but the romantic development is diluted by all the other plot elements that are piled on and it became difficult to keep track of all the different plotlines and who was working for whom and why.
There is an overarching plot running through the three books in the series relating to some coded documents left to the possession of Sophia, heroine of the first book, Jilting the Duke. While the documents are now in the hands of the Good Guys, the code has yet to be broken. Add to this the further machinations of the mysterious Charters and his henchman, a woman intent on revenge on Olivia’s father, Walgrave’s search for a traitor, Olivia’s other secret identity as the author of gothic novels, the strange presence of seven very eccentric scholars who pretty much live on the estate, and it was all too much. I thought I might have to resort to making a flow chart.
On the positive side, I enjoyed the brief glimpses we were given of the relationship between Walgrave and his two closest friends, the two principals are engaging, attractive characters and the chemistry between them simmers nicely – which makes it even more frustrating to think that there was a potentially satisfying, well-constructed romance in there somewhere. Olivia and Walgrave do get their HEA in this book, but there are lots of threads left hanging, which would have been fine if there hadn’t been so many of them, and if they’d made more sense during the course of this story. I’ve read and reviewed all three books in this series so far, and it’s been interesting from my point of view to look back and find that I have made similar comments about each of them, most significantly that the novels are “too busy”. Ms. Miles can clearly craft a decent plot, but she is apt to throw in too much, with the result that the plotlines are underdeveloped and the sheer number of them can cause confusion. I came away from the book with a vague sense of having read something that wasn’t quite finished; there are several unresolved plot threads left hanging at the end but I venture to suggest that Ms. Miles might need to consider wrapping some of them up soon or readers may get tired of waiting.
Arriving at a final grade was difficult. Ultimately, Tempting the Earl worked better than Chasing the Heiress, to which I gave a C+, so I’m going to give this a very qualified recommendation with a B-.