Desert Isle Keeper
The Mysterious Miss M
Like many new writers, Diane Gaston suffered years of rejection before Harlequin’s Mills & Boon published her first novel, The Mysterious Miss M, for the U.K. market in 2004. What is remarkable about that is Gaston isn’t a British romance writer; she’s an American living in Virginia (who now writes under the name Diane Perkins for Warner Books). Talk about the interesting route to publication. A big reason why publishers may have passed on the book was that it featured the unlikeliest type of heroine: a prostitute. Well, it’s a terrific book, and Harlequin has just reissued it for the U.S. market.
Madeline works as a prostitute called The Mysterious Miss M at Lord Farley’s notorious club, and men gamble for the chance to bed her. She hates this life, but learns the hard way that Farley isn’t going to let her go – not that she has anywhere to go. She meets her next customer, a soldier, and realizes quickly that he’s different from the others. Devlin is kind to her, and his courage in fighting for his country stirs her respect. For the first time ever, Madeline wants to make love to a customer and the passion that they share transcends their roles of prostitute and customer.
Several years later, after Waterloo, Devlin returns to the gambling club and wins a fortune at cards, despite the fact that Farley rigged the game. When Farley, angry over his losses, strikes at Madeline for refusing a customer, Devlin intervenes and winds up accepting her as payment for Farley’s debt. Madeline comes with an unusual piece of luggage – her little daughter, Linette.
Devlin does his best by his new dependents. He shows consistent kindness to Madeline and Linette, which Madeline doesn’t understand at all. She has cherished her initial encounter with Devlin all these years, but she’s not about to trust him after the life she has led with Farley. When she tries to seduce him as repayment for sheltering her and her daughter, his refusal stuns her. Devlin wants to sleep with Madeline, but he wants her honest desire, not her skills in seduction, no matter how tempting they are. He gradually gains her trust, never expecting that, in the process, he is losing his heart to her.
But Devlin’s brother, the marquess, poses a threat to their growing relationship. The custodian of Devlin’s fortune and estate until he marries, the marquess tires of what he perceives as Devlin’s aimlessness and out of control gambling and issues an ultimatum: court a suitable woman and offer her marriage, or else receive only half of his quarterly allowance on which to live. Devlin has come to care greatly for Madeline and Linette; though he searches for ways to raise money, no reasonable options turn up, and, in the end, he makes the only decision possible to ensure their security.
Madeline and Devlin are sympathetic and appealing characters. Readers immediately care about Madeline. Despite her earlier rebellion, she believes she deserves her life, because she contributed to the cause of it. Devlin helps her to understand that she cannot blame herself completely. With his reassurance, Madeline starts to believe she’s more than a prostitute, and the scenes where she teaches herself new skills are very nice.
Devlin’s Waterloo experience haunts him terribly, and if he turns to Madeline for sexual comfort at first, he later recognizes the deeper comfort she offers with her love and sympathy. It becomes clear that Madeline and Devlin belong together, that the love they have found heals their wounds and brings them great happiness, and yet it will all end soon by Devlin’s offer of marriage to another woman. The poignancy of their doomed romance becomes very keen, especially in the moments where Madeline valets Devlin for the parties he attends to find the woman that will take him away from Madeline forever.
Add in a heartless villain who has nefarious plans for Devlin and little Linette, an intriguing subplot about an unhappy marriage between two people who actually long to please each other, and a few neat plot twists, and you have a top notch read in The Mysterious Miss M that scores on all emotional bases. A bumper crop of well-written romances has shown up lately featuring fallen heroines, such as Mary Balogh’s reissued The Secret Pearl and Julia Justiss’s The Courtesan. The Mysterious Miss M joins this worthy pack. I’m very glad Diane Gaston was finally able to publish this book and that Harlequin has made it available to U.S. readers.