At the start of Desired, Tess Darent, the Dowager Marchioness of Darent, in an attempt to elude raiding redcoats searching for radical reformers, ties a sheet about her waist and slips out the window of The Temple of Venus brothel. As she reaches the end of her tether, holding a borrowed purse and lavender slippers and swaying four feet above the ground, hands snatch her shoes, clasp her waist, and, oh so gently, lower her to the ground. The hands belong to Owen Purchase, the Viscount Rothbury, who has been sent by the Home Secretary to arrest the reformers.
When Tess asks Owen to return her slippers, he sinks to his knees and slides the too small shoes on her feet. “Just like Prince Charming,” she says. He replies, “I missed the bit of the fairy tale where Cinderella visited the brothel.”
The dazzling scene is a grand start to a quite good book.
Owen and Tess have met before — he’s friends with her sisters’ husbands — and both are renowned in the ton. Tess is a scandal. She’s been married and widowed three times (and is just 29), and is infamous for her gambling, extravagant spending, and worst of all, a series of highly erotic naked portraits. Owen, an American who fought first for England against the French and then against the Brits in the American Revolution, came quite expectedly into his title. Once a middle class sea captain, he’s now every matchmaking mother’s dream. And a few days after their encounter at the brothel, Tess too decides Owen is just the man she needs as her new husband.
Tess has several problems marriage to Owen will solve. First, she believes passionately British society must become more equitable and for many years has been a leader of and a generous donor to the illegal reform movement. As part of her work to change her world, Tess draws, under the pen name Jupiter, brilliantly biting satirical cartoons which infuriate the Home Office. Tess believes Owen knows her identity and, were he to marry her, he’d stop hunting her and perhaps even protect her. Second, an exceedingly nasty lord is trying to force Tess to give her permission for him to marry her innocent 15 year-old stepdaughter. This lecherous lout threatens to ruin the young girl’s reputation — by association – by spreading slanderous gossip about Tess. Were Tess to be a staid spouse rather than a wild widow, she feels the talk about her would subside.
Owen, who has only ever loved (and lost) one other woman, has never considered becoming any woman’s fourth husband. Furthermore, when Tess proposes to him, he’s fairly sure she is an illegal reformer and is asking him to marry her so he won’t be able to arrest her. But he finds her imminently desirable, interesting, and — because he is a good man — savable. He says yes to Tess and the two become betrothed.
There’s just one problem. Tess’s second husband was a sexual predator. He, in the two horrific months they were married, repeatedly raped Tess and, one fateful weekend, drugged her, stripped her, and showed her off to other men, including the artist who painted those sleazy nude works. That marriage left Tess unable to feel anything but terror when touched. (She was never sexually intimate with her third husband; he was on death’s door and a laudanum addict to boot.) Tess erroneously thinks Owen is impotent from a war injury and thus believes their marriage will be one in name only. Tess tells Owen theirs will be a marriage of convenience but he, full of desire for her, doesn’t think she means they’ll never make love.
One of the best things about this book is that Owen wants to make love to Tess. He’s not interested in slaking his considerable lust on her beautiful body — he wants her to want him as much as he wants her. When, on their wedding day, Tess has a near nervous breakdown and confides in Owen about her past, he doesn’t reject her or become angry. He gathers her in his arms, tucks her safely in bed, and, as he watches her sleep, vows to undo the damage done to her. He doesn’t lie to himself or her how much he longs to make love to her, but his desire is sublimated by his pledge to help Tess overcome the pain and darkness in her heart.
There are those who will feel Tess overcomes her aversion to physical passion too quickly. Within days of her marriage, Tess lets Owen – carefully, gently – make love to her. I didn’t have a problem with this. It’s clear Tess’s trouble isn’t with desire; she’s grown to care for and trust Owen and she finds him an attractive man. I felt, in the weeks before their marriage, Owen and Tess created a bond strong enough for Tess to rely on. I didn’t see their intimacy as rushed — I saw it as a natural outcome of all the two had shared. In Desired, Tess not only desires Owen; she trusts him.
Until she doesn’t. In the latter part of the book, Tess acts in ways that don’t make sense. She endangers herself and Owen. The suspicion that springs up between them seems, on her part, capricious. Perhaps this is because I’ve not read any of the earlier books in the series. This is the fifth book in Ms. Cornick’s Scandalous Women of the Ton series and people and plots from the earlier books are integral to Desired. I suspect I needed a back-story in order to understand Tess’s often dangerous commitment to reform and her complicated relationships with several significant characters in this book. This lack of context made the dénouement of the novel unconvincing as it relies on the dramatic actions of a character barely showcased in this tale.I so liked the love story in this book, I was able to easily forgive the novel’s shortcomings. Tess and Owen are characters I truly enjoyed discovering. The pair, by the story’s end, share with each other — and the reader — all of themselves: Minds, bodies, and souls. As I read the novel’s moving last words, I found it wonderfully easy to imagine somewhere, in a time long ago, Tess and Owen living — as the fairy tales say — happily ever after.