Bound by Their Secret Passion
Bound by Their Secret Passion is the fourth and final book in Diane Gaston’s series of stories about The Scandalous Summerfields, three sisters and one half-brother whose name became a byword for scandal when their mother ran off with her lover and their father, a libertine and drunkard, gambled away everything and left them destitute.
The previous book, Bound by a Scandalous Secret, whetted my appetite for this, the story of the eldest sister, Lorene, who sacrificed her own happiness in order to marry a much older, dictatorial man so that she could provide financially for her siblings. Her life with Lord Tinmore was not a happy one. He took delight in belittling his young wife, allowed the servants to get away with showing her disrespect and insisted on controlling her every move, frequently prohibiting her from leaving the house. In the previous book, the author hinted at the possibility of Lorene having developed a tendre for Dell Summerfield, Earl of Penford, the very distant relative who inherited the family’s title and estate after her father’s death. The depth of longing between the two was so well conveyed as to be palpable, so I was looking forward to theirs being an angsty story of forbidden love.
Bound by Their Secret Passion begins as Dell is escorting Lorene home after Christmas Day spent at Summerfield House with her sisters, Tess and Genna, and their husbands. On arrival at Tinmore House, Tinmore furiously accuses Dell and Lorene of having an affair; Dell informs him that is not true and tries to leave, having reached the front steps when Tinmore attacks him with his cane. Dell is prepared to parry the intended blow but before he can do so, the older man clutches at his head, falls down the steps and is dead before he reaches the bottom.
The coroner and magistrate are sent for immediately and an inquest is held which absolves Dell of any responsibility in Tinmore’s death, despite the assertions of the vengeful butler, Dixon, that Dell and Lorene had deliberately conspired to murder Tinmore so they could be together.
Coming from a family whose name is a byword for scandal and having endured plenty of it herself when she was labelled a fortune hunter after her marriage to a wealthy, older man, Lorene wants no more of it. She is more than half-way in love with Dell, but she knows that if the two of them are seen together now, even after the exoneration at the inquest, there will be gossip about them and some people will continue to believe that they murdered her husband.
Dell is similarly smitten with Lorene and has been for a long time, although he refuses to admit to the depth of his feelings for her. Just a few years earlier, he lost his entire family in a house fire and is still trying to come to terms with the fact that he is now alone. As a result, he has decided that he doesn’t want to care deeply for anyone ever again as their loss would be too hard to bear, so he forces himself to keep his distance from Lorene, both physically and emotionally.
They meet again after a separation of over a year, when Lorene comes to London in order to sell the town house left her in her late husband’s will. The feelings they had harboured for each other come roaring back to life, but they at last feel that perhaps they can at last spend a little time together without causing too much gossip. The pleasure – and passion – they find in each other is short-lived, however, as the revival of old scandal threatens to part them forever.
What I said at the beginning about this potentially being an angsty story fraught with longing is certainly the case and I can’t deny that Ms. Gaston does write Dell and Lorene’s yearning for each other extremely well. Neither of them is initially prepared to make sacrifices to be together; Lorene because she is afraid of the scandal and Dell because he is afraid of loving someone. In fact, he’s so afraid of love, that he is considering making a marriage of convenience with a young debutante, a fact which lands him into a spot of bother later on in the story. And Lorene’s wish to hide from rumour and gossip is ground underfoot when her mother, the notorious Lady Summerfield, unexpectedly turns up in England with her lover in tow and proceeds to scandalise the ton with her deliberately outrageous behaviour.
As a side note – Lady Summerfield is one of those characters you want to simultaneously strangle and applaud. On the one hand, she seems not to know, or just not to care, how her disappearance had affected her daughters and how damaging her devil-may-care attitude is to their reputations. But on the other, I liked the way she metaphorically thumbed her nose at society by doing as she wanted, and rather wished that Lorene had inherited some of her backbone.
Because her lack of it is one of my main problems with the story. I understood Lorene’s reasons for wanting to hide herself away, and I understood her reluctance to marry again (although that fact isn’t really dwelled upon). But after a while those understandable fears began to feel like weakness and a lack of gumption. The strength of character she displayed by marrying in order to provide for her brother and sisters is admirable, but seems to have completely disappeared by the time it comes to securing her own happiness. And Dell’s insistence on allowing his fears to run his life has a similar effect; he comes across as weak because he isn’t willing to take a risk for the woman he loves, preferring instead to pine for her and not to think about the good things life has to offer.
In the end, I found it difficult to sympathise with either protagonist and found their lack of agency frustrating. While Bound by Their Secret Passion makes use of a storyline I should have really enjoyed, it fell rather flat and didn’t live up to my expectations. With that said, the book is well-written and I remain a fan of the author’s – but this one didn’t quite hit the spot.