The Work of Art
What made me pick up Mimi Matthews’ The Work of Art was the simple fact that the rich, powerful duke with the dark past was the villain rather than the hero. What kept me reading, though, was a well-crafted story with a compelling hero and heroine. It has a couple of issues which I’ll mention later, but on the whole, this was a great read.
The story begins when Phyllida Satterthwaite tries to get her boisterous dogs out of her uncle’s library, though not before one of the animals has ended up in a gentleman’s lap. Worse, the man is clearly recovering from a leg injury. Phyllida’s concern for him grows as she realizes he’s almost as much of a stranger among his peers as she is, and when she sees that he has difficulty getting around, she discreetly helps him.
It’s the start of an unusual friendship for Captain Arthur Heywood, who feels his disability isolates him from society. But he can’t help responding to Phyllida’s warmth and her ability to appreciate him for himself. Then he discovers that another man intends to marry her – and that man is the Duke of Moreland, also known as The Collector because of his habit of acquiring whatever he considers both beautiful and unusual. Phyllida, with her heterochromatic eyes (one blue, one amber), qualifies as such, but there’s a rumor that the Duke drowned his first wife. And Arthur discovers a wager that The Collector will be widowed again before the year is out.
Meanwhile, Phyllida’s uncle introduces her to the Duke, but when that gentleman strikes his dog (readers who don’t want to encounter animal cruelty should be aware of this), she declines his offer of marriage. Whereupon the Duke tells her it wasn’t an offer. Her uncle is giving her to him, and therefore he expects to take possession of what belongs to him.
And to her shock, Phyllida realizes that everything her uncle has done for her has been for the sole purpose of exhibiting her for the duke’s purchase. Even allowing her to keep her dogs was done with that in mind, since when she flinches from marrying the duke, her uncle threatens to kill them. This is one of the few historical romances which made me genuinely afraid for the heroine. The trap she found herself in is so realistic, well set up and perfectly written.
She goes to Arthur for help, and he proposes they marry. After the wedding, they retire to his country estate, because the Duke has a reputation for revenging himself on anyone who thwarts him in his acquisitions. But they soon find that trouble has followed them home.
For the most part, this book was sheer enjoyment. Phyllida and Arthur are two very likable people who make the most of a friendship that turns a bit too quickly into marriage, and I love how supportive they are of each other. Reading this, you feel that they’ll always have each other’s backs. I also like how Arthur gradually learns to overcome his difficulties in doing what he once took for granted, such as shooting, though his PTSD seems to disappear fairly quickly.
But that leads me into one of the book’s shortcomings. Mimi Matthews writes romances where sex isn’t depicted. However, if the story shows the hero’s struggle to walk unaided, to ride and to shoot, why doesn’t it show what it’s like for a man with a serious disability to make love?
Even more frustrating, there’s a lot of chemistry between Arthur and Phyllida. So on more than one occasion, they kiss, touch, and start to loosen clothing. Then the bedroom door closes. If authors don’t want to write sex scenes, that’s their choice, but I’d rather not get teased with foreplay minus a payoff.
The other problem is that at the end, there’s a twist that requires Phyllida to behave like a complete idiot, which is one of my least favorite tropes ever. This felt as though Mr. Matthews was trying to end the story with a dramatic bang, but it was more of an embarrassing splat.
On the whole, though, The Work of Art is a delightful and moving romance. If you’re looking for a detailed historical background, a very interesting setup and two characters who work at making a strong, loving relationship despite all the challenges they face, don’t waste any time in settling in to read this one.