In Breathless, their sequel to A Courtesan’s Guide to Getting Your Man, Celeste Bradley and Susan Donovan present readers with this enjoyable story of an amnesiac courtesan who becomes a muse and a professor of sociology discovering a yen for adventure.
Assistant Professor of Sociology Brenna Anderson is at the end of her tether. She adores her work but she feels dissatisfied with her bourgeois life and her mid-level academic rank, which is being threatened by parents offended by the erotic nature of her class. The paintings that form the Siren Series feature the same blonde woman, showing a mermaid tattoo, and are regarded as the most intensely erotic examples of pre-Victorian western art in the known world – and have become something of an obsession. They provided the material for her doctoral thesis, and she yearns to examine the paintings in person but has been shut out by their owner, the industrialist H. Winston Guileford, and his treasure-hunting lackey, Fitch Wilder.
She’s furious with both men, but especially Fitch, who recycled Brenna’s thesis material on national television due to his lack of expertise while at the same time shutting her out after she offered her authentication services. That he’s beaten her to the punch and found the sixth – and long believed lost painting – in the Siren Series in a closed-up Paris apartment abandoned at the end of World War II galls her. Fitch is not an accredited art historian, and thanks to the reading of her thesis she sees him as little more than a con man.
With a faltering career and a broken relationship behind her, and her best friend focusing on new motherhood, Brenna feels somewhat adrift and turns to her mentor, Claudia Harrington-Howell, for guidance. Claudia has recently discovered the diary of the mysterious Swan, reputedly the finest courtesan in late Georgian London and this, together with the completely unexpected discovery of a hidden painting in the Siren Series sees Claudia suggesting she and Brenna go to London in order to undertake further research.
Fitch, too, is making discoveries. He uncovers a love poem believed to have been written by The Swan dating from her time in Catalonia. Brenna and Fitch, following the same lead, soon clash, flirt and banter in both London and Spain, and the time they spend together serves to reveal more of them to each other. Each has each has information the other needs to complete the puzzle of The Swan, and with their newly found awareness of each other, the temptation to embark upon a physical relationship proves to be great. Can they find The Swan’s true origins and uncover the seven missing paintings? Will they manage to fall in love along the way?
It turns out that The Swan – a courtesan of wide renown who flouted gender conventions by being a businesswoman in Georgian England – washed up on the Catalonian coast after being kidnapped by smugglers on the orders of the wife of one of her lovers, who wanted her dead. Without her memory – indeed without knowledge of how the human world works – shoeless, naked and friendless, The Swan finds herself in the Castell de la Cala, and wakes to see a man she knows only as The Artist sketching her. Beloved in the town, The Artist is a British man with a tortured military past who is being protected by the village. She learns that he saved her from the beach, and they begin to fall in love – and then her memory returns. The past threatens to catch up with them, even as they are creating a series of paintings that will change the course of western art forever.
Breathless is a fun little romp that reminded me a little bit of Possession, with its lovers from two different time periods struggling toward togetherness. I will say that I found the historical section of the novel far more interesting and action packed than the modern portions, but overall the entire novel is funny and spicy and compelling.
The Swan is an interesting character, complex, nervy, fearless and interesting at first, which meant it was a disappointment when she was struck mute and personality-less by her shipwreck. Some portions of the story are very Old School Romance, as the captain ‘forcibly seduces’ and spanks and rapes her; there’s no reason for this to happen in the plot, but happen it does. Her previous life also includes all of the unsavory portions of brothel life that one might imagine, from pedophilia to suicide. There are, otherwise, a lot of Little Mermaid overtones to the story, such as her muteness and the whole foundling from the sea thing she has going on. The way her backstory slowly ekes out is quite interesting, and I loved The Artist’s gentleness and his romantic ways. They make a couple as compelling as our modern-day hero and heroine.
The modern section has a Romancing the Stone/Mummy vibe to it; I sympathized with Brenna’s goals and desperately wanted her to succeed but I liked Fitch better as a PoV character; he’s funny and horny and daunting and biting, though a bit of a jerk as well. Their adventure through Europe to track down The Swan’s legacy is properly gripping – the authors manage to slowly feed tiny bits of information about The Swan to the reader without spoiling the entire ending. I especially liked the minor characters Donovan and Bradley have woven into the narrative – such as the ladylike but practical Claudia.
Breathless compels and entices and the romances are sweet, although the rest of the story is less so, given that it doesn’t shy away from the gritty realities of the post-Napoleonic era. One of these tales has a wonderful HFN and another a nice HEA. I will leave it to the reader to discover which is which.
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