His Wicked Reputation
This is the first in a new series from Ms Hunter featuring three ducal sons, two of whom are legitimate and a third who is not – and this is his book. It’s an entertaining story; the central characters are likeable and intelligent, and there is an intriguing secondary plot surrounding the possible art theft the hero is asked to investigate. But when I finished the book, I couldn’t help feeling there was something missing, and I can’t quite put my finger on what it was.
Gareth Fitzallen is the bastard son of late Duke of Aylesbury. His father openly acknowledged him and he shares a strong bond of friendship and affection with two of his half-brothers, Lance and Ives. The eldest brother, Percy, who assumed the dukedom upon their father’s death, has also recently died, and it’s no secret that none of the brothers is inclined to mourn him very much. While Gareth’s relationship to Aylesbury has undoubtedly opened some doors to him, he’s pretty much made his own way in the world, making his his living as an art dealer and broker. Now Percy is dead, Gareth has hopes of being at last able to take possession of a property left him by his father, his claim to which the unpleasant and malicious Percy had deliberately tied up in legal knots in Chancery.
Travelling to the Midlands in order to take possession of his inheritance, Gareth is not far from the house when he accidentally manages to run a young woman into a muddy puddle. Naturally she is not best pleased, but refuses his help when he offers to carry the rather large package she is struggling with, and her acerbic reaction to him piques his interest.
Eva Russell lives with her younger sister in greatly reduced circumstances, thanks to their late brother’s profligacy. She generates a little extra income by selling paintings, but rather than selling her own work, which she doesn’t think is very good, she instead paints copies of the far more skilfully wrought and attractive works she discovered stowed away in the attics of the seemingly abandoned house that is her nearest neighbour. So she has good reason for not accepting help with her burden – it’s a painting she has “borrowed” from Gareth’s house.
Shortly after his arrival, Gareth is called back to London by Ives, and asked to assist with the investigation with which he has been tasked – to track down a number of priceless artworks which were supposedly moved to a place of safety when it looked as though Napoleon might invade, but which were never returned to their original location when the war ended.
While it’s fairly obvious where things might be headed in terms of that particular plotline, the mystery element of the story is nonetheless intriguing and unfolds at a good pace. I suspect some readers may feel the mystery overshadows the romance somewhat, but I thought the balance was just about right.
Gareth and Eva are intelligent, appealing and determined characters who are very strongly attracted to each other even as they are wary of emotional entanglements. Gareth has a reputation as a womaniser, a man whose sexual prowess is such that he has women falling over themselves to warm his bed, and who never want to leave it once there. But he’s a decent man, generous, perceptive and, it has to be admitted, deliciously hot – one who adheres strictly to his own set of rules; he doesn’t seduce innocents, and a lady’s wishes are always to be respected. By his own strictures, Eva should be off limits, but her mix of confidence and vulnerability intrigues him and he can’t stop thinking about her. He knows Eva is not as immune to him as she would have him believe, and that she experiences the same heat of desire that he feels whenever they meet. The attraction between them won’t be denied and it’s not long before they embark upon a no-strings-attached affair which allows them to explore the passion between them and enjoy being close to another person without the potential for any deeper emotional involvement. Or so they think.
When Eva insists that their sexual relationship has to come to an end, Gareth abides by her decision, but says that he will always be a friend to her. One of the best things about the story is the way that friendship develops, and how Eva and Gareth come to know and depend upon one another almost without realising it.
There are a number of well-developed secondary characters in the book, not least of which is Eva’s beautiful sister, Rebecca, a crusading free-thinker who deters unwanted suitors by quoting Voltaire and Plato endlessly at them! Then there are Gareth’s brothers, Lance, who is now the Duke of Aylesbury, and Lord Ywain, who prefers to be called Ives, one of the finest legal minds of his generation. They are both intriguing personalities and their relationship with Gareth is one of the highlights of the book; the three of them obviously share a deep respect for each other, and there’s a lovely undercurrent of familial affection between them.
I said at the beginning that I came away from the book feeling there was something lacking that I couldn’t quite identify – and even as I come to the end of writing this review, I still can’t describe it. On paper, His Wicked Reputation has everything – two likeable central characters, sexually-charged verbal-sparring, humour, a good storyline, hot, sensual love scenes, and a well-drawn set of secondary characters. So perhaps this is a case of “it’s not you, it’s me”. Don’t get me wrong – I did enjoy the book and will certainly go on to read the next in the series, but this one didn’t wow me as I’d expected it to.