Lilian and the Irresistible Duke
Virginia Heath’s Lilian and the Irresistible Duke is the final book in the multi-author Secrets of a Victorian Household series – a fact I didn’t realise until I read the author’s notes after I’d finished, so I can honestly say that it works perfectly well as a standalone! I’m a big fan of the author’s work, so I don’t need much – if any – persuading to read one of her books, but the fact that this one is about a more mature couple (the hero is forty-eight, the heroine forty-five) was a definite draw. That said, while there were things about the book I really liked, it won’t be joining other titles by this author on my keeper shelf. I found the first half a bit repetitive and I very much disliked the ‘black moment’ in the second half. I know there had to be one, but it didn’t work for me.
The eponymous Lilian, a mother of three (hero and heroines of the other books in the series) lost her husband Henry to illness around a decade earlier. She loved him very much and had a fulfilling – if not always easy – life as wife, mother and helpmeet, assisting him with the running of the charitable foundation he set up to help those less fortunate. Working at Henry’s side and bringing up their children was a full-time occupation and one Lilian found personally fulfilling; but now her children are grown and married, she’s suffering from ‘empty nest syndrome’ and isn’t sure what she wants to do with her life. She’s begun to realise that, in working so hard for the Foundation, she’d allowed Henry’s passion to overtake hers; that she’d lost sight of her own interests, hopes and dreams. So now that her children are all settled, she allows herself to be persuaded to take a holiday in the one place in the world she’s always longed to visit – Rome.
Lilian and her cousin Alexandra, who has accompanied her on the trip, are to stay at the home of one of Alexandra’s friends, Carlotta, the Contessa di Bagnoregio, and Lilian is just getting settled in when she almost literally runs into a man she’d never thought to meet again. Several months before, at a Christmas party, Lilian had met Pietro Venturi, Duca della Torizia, who was visiting London at the time. Late that night in a darkened carriage, Lilian had allowed herself to be thoroughly kissed by the handsome Italian, his kiss stirring up so many feelings that she’d thought long buried with Henry, and starting to unfurl something long dormant inside her. Not just desire… a growing sense of self and a spirit of adventure, perhaps?
Pietro is just as surprised to see Lilian, and at first jumps to completely the wrong conclusion about her presence, saying some rather rude and crass things to her. But he quickly realises his mistake, and takes care to apologise; and during the course of their conversation, they agree to put the kiss they’d shared behind them and to go on as friends.
Even so, both of them are fully aware of the strong mutual attraction thrumming between them. Still, they try to adhere to their agreement as they start to spend part of each day together, Pietro escorting Lilian to see the city’s many artistic treasures. He finds himself enjoying her enthusiasm for art and her insight, her refreshing way of seeing the paintings, frescoes and sculptures which are so familiar to him, and it isn’t long before they are unable to deny the desire they feel for one another. They embark on a passionate affair which, at Lilian’s insistence, will be over and done when she leaves, although of course, both of them soon recognise that whatever is going on between them goes far deeper than the merely physical. For Pietro, this is a disaster; he doesn’t want to have feelings for Lilian – for anyone – and he tries to convince himself that she’s no more to him than any of his other lovers.
I really liked Lilian. She’s sensible and down-to-earth, but not closed off to new experiences and I loved the way the author shows her growing awareness of herself as an independent person and as a woman, one with needs and desires she’s suppressed for a long time. I liked Pietro, too – he’s handsome, charming and romantic in a very gentlemanly (and sexy) way – but his backstory is perhaps a bit stereotypical; he married young – his bride chosen for him by his father – and the marriage was obviously unhappy. It’s clear to Lilian that he’s hiding something painful about it, but he refuses to enlighten her further, saying only that he has no wish to become emotionally involved with anyone. Ever. Not wanting another wife, he instead conducts highly discreet affairs with women who know the score; that their relationship is physical only and there is nothing more on offer. Unfortunately, this fact comes back to bite him squarely on the arse later in the story – and although I can’t say much without spoilers, I will say that Lilian’s reaction to an overheard conversation felt very out of character, given the way the author has established her as a straightforward, pragmatic character who isn’t interested in playing emotional games. I get that she was hurt and that perhaps her pride was bruised, but it still seemed like a massive over-reaction, and it happened so quickly, it’s a wonder I’m not suffering from whiplash.
In spite of my reservations about certain aspects of the plot – and the fact that the epilogue is over-long (if you’ve read the other books in the series, it might work better for you, but I had no investment in any of the other characters) – there’s a lot to like about Lilian and the Irresistible Duke. It’s a ‘grown up’ romance between two people who have a wealth of life experience under their belts, the sex scenes are well-written – without lengthy mental-lusting, slick thighs or twitching appendages – and I really appreciated Lilian’s re-claiming of her self and the way she comes to realise she has a life of her own to lead. It might not be my favourite of the author’s books, but is nonetheless head and shoulders above much of the historical romance currently on offer.
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