I’ve often found that in a trilogy, the middle book is the weakest. This looks to be the case with Madame’s Deception, the middle book in Renee Bernard’s Mistress trilogy. Even though the final book hasn’t been published yet, it has to be better than this dull offering. After the success of her debut last year, it’s hard to imagine it could be worse.
Jocelyn Tolliver is a permanent boarder at The Wheaton School For Young Ladies. She lives for the visits of her beautiful mother, who is one of London’s most renowned couturiers. When Mrs. Tolliver visits her daughter, she takes her many places and they have a wonderful time together, but they never go to London. One day when Jocelyn is almost 18, she receives news that her mother is sick and dying. When Jocelyn makes her way to London to her mother’s bedside, she discovers that her mother is no dressmaker, but is the madam of the Crimson Belle, a posh brothel. Jocelyn’s mother makes her swear that she will take care of the business and the girls who work there. Jocelyn swears she will and at the tender age of 18, becomes Madame DeBourcier, Mistress of the Crimson Belle.
Ten years later, Jocelyn has more than fulfilled her vow to her mother. The Belle is still popular. The girls who work there make lots of money, and are provided with schooling, advice, and protection. It’s quite an idyllic life. So far, Jocelyn has been able to keep her main rival – Fergus Marsh – at bay and the Belle is the most popular brothel in town. Her life is reclusive, but she feels bound by her vow to her mother.
Enter Alex Randall, Lord Colwick. He is a handsome rake (although I thought he was a rather restrained rake) and obsessed by the the reclusive Madame DeBourcier. He wants a season with her as his mistress and is willing to pay for the privilege. Jocelyn demurs, but finally she agrees to be Alex’s companion for the season, and as their sexual relationship deepens, so does their passion with each other.
Romance readers have encountered any number of virgin widows before, but this book featured a first – a virgin madam. It’s to Renee Bernard’s credit that she makes this very believable. Jocelyn may be virginal, but she is not naive, nor is she clueless. It’s simply that in a world where she is surrounded by sex, Jocelyn has chosen not to indulge in it. For almost ten years Jocelyn’s emotions have been consumed by her vow to her mother, but by the time Alex makes his proposal, she has come to a point where she is lonely and wants the touch of a man. She and Alex go into this relationship intending to keep it only physical but it becomes much more intense than they had planned it to be.
This could have been a seriously emotional book – but it fell very flat. Alex and Jocelyn just weren’t very interesting. The pages and pages of purple prose skim over the surface, but never get to the core of their emotions. After a while, the book simply was nothing more than a lavender-tinged angst fest. So the author tossed in a mystery (one of the Belle’s girls is killed), but that too turned out to be very uninteresting.
There is one aspect to Madame’s Deception that enraged me, and that’s how the book shows the life of a Victorian prostitute. In Bernard’s world, it’s all fun and games, nobody ever gets pregnant, the pox, or the clap. The girls never get jealous or fight, and none is ever abused by a customer (which may explain why the Belle employs but one male guard). All the women just love their work. One girl is from a good family with a good education but she wants to be a whore since her passions are so hot. Come on! The life of a prostitute is hard even now, and back then it was dangerous in the extreme.
I was vastly disappointed in this book. Bernard’s first book, A Lady’s Pleasure was an enjoyable romance with an old school feel to it. This one is just boring. According to the author blurb, Renee Bernard is working on her third book in the her trilogy. Let’s hope she can re-capture the feel of her first one.