Perhaps my favorite novella in romance is This Wicked Gift, written and published by Ms. Milan in 2009. In it, Ms. Milan presents a hero who forces the heroine to make love with him. Things, however, are not what they seem, and in that tale, what the hero thinks is forced is really a gift willingly bestowed by the heroine. In Ms. Milan’s latest novella, also a marvelous piece, the heroine, Serena Barton, is forced to have sex against her will. Her experience leaves her pregnant, ashamed, and determined to make her rapist, the Duke of Clermont, acknowledge both his crime and his unborn child. The Duke, a weak and morally bereft man, has no intention of doing any such thing. He asks the man who handles all his affairs, the fearsome Hugo Marshall, to silence Serena. The Governess Affair tells their story and does so with splendor and insight.
Three months ago, Serena was working as a governess for a family whom the Duke of Clermont came to visit. The Duke came to her room one night, forced himself on Serena, took her virginity, and left her pregnant. Serena feels complicit in her own rape because she didn’t fight him. Now, Serena is determined to regain her sense of herself and her life. As she says, “I am done with things happening to me. From here on out, I am going to happen to things.”
Serena has confronted the Duke and he has ignored her. She decides to sit on a bench in front of his house until she receives compensation and recognition. Her behavior couldn’t come at a worse time for the Duke. He’s deeply in need of funds he can only get from his new wife’s guardian and the Duke has been such a terrible husband to his Duchess that she’s run off and abandoned him. The last thing the Duke needs is for his wife to find out he “seduced” and impregnated some other woman. So the Duke does what he always does when he needs any problem solved: He turns the matter over to his man of business, the Wolf of Clermont, an ex-boxer feared by all for the effective ruthlessness he employs against those who threaten the Duke. This man, Hugo, does indeed handle all the Duke’s affairs, but he does so not out of any loyalty to the Duke — Hugo thinks the man is an idiot and a slacker — but because the money he can earn working for the Duke will allow Hugo to accomplish his lifelong dream of being the “richest coal miner’s son in all of England.”
When the Duke tells Hugo to make Serena quietly go away, the Duke does not tell Hugo the truth about what he did to Serena. Hugo knows the Duke is lying about something but he doesn’t care. The governess exists to Hugo only as a problem to solve, by means fair or foul. Hugo strolls out to the bench to have a conversation with Serena, one he hopes will get her to see she has no choice but to take the fifty pounds the Duke is willing to offer her and then vanish. Serena, however, is not what Hugo was expecting, nor is she willing to take his paltry offer. Over the next week, Serena and Hugo continue to converse, each unwilling to back down. Every conversation the two share fuels a growing attraction between them, one that Hugo doesn’t want and that Serena sees with hope.
God, I loved their story. Hugo is a complicated man and his struggle to choose between doing the Duke’s biding and his unwanted feelings for Serena is extremely difficult for him. He, a man who prides himself on never hurting women, is forced to acknowledge his actions, while not physical, could cause Serena harm. His reaction, when he learns the truth about what the Duke did to Serena, makes it clear to himself and to the reader that Hugo is indeed the man Serena wishes he is.
As for Serena, she’s not only a wonderful character, full of wit and resolve; she gives voice and hope, in ways that made me cry, to women who have been raped. First by confronting the Duke, then by deliberately choosing Hugo — even when he doesn’t want her to — Serena drives away her fear and her guilt. There’s a scene — a gorgeous, sexy, incredible scene — near the book’s end, where Serena and Hugo make love. I wish every woman ever raped could have the experience written in The Governess Affair. Ms. Milan makes the way Serena and Hugo conquer the memory of Serena’s rape believable and beautiful. Rape is a crime of violence and power — Hugo knows this and thus, when he gives his body to Serena, he does so in a way that heals Serena by replacing her feelings of pain and shame with those of pleasure and intimacy.
The novella is a prequel to a new series by Ms. Milan called The Brothers Sinister. The last chapter of The Governess Affair(also really well done) takes place “not quite twelve years later” at Eton and recounts the first time the Duke’s two sons, Robert (the Duchess of Clermont’s son) and Oliver (Serena’s son) meet. Robert is the hero in the first book, The Duchess Wars, which will be released this summer. I can’t wait.
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We should do a PB.
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