|The Secret Pearl is an absolute gem of a book.
I must tell you that synopsizing this book does it a disservice. There is no info-dump in the opening pages. Rather, Ms. Balogh gives us pertinent information about the hero and heroine in a trickle, telling us only what we need to know at any given moment and leaving us in delicious suspense about the rest. I will give you the barest skeleton – please read the book and discover the details for yourself.
One evening, as a man is leaving the theatre at Drury Lane, he sees a prostitute standing quietly in the shadows. She does nothing to call attention to herself, but he asks her price and takes her to a nearby inn. There, the encounter is swift and brusque, but fraught with odd undercurrents that culminate in the gentleman’s discovery that the thin, rather pallid whore had been a virgin.
When business is concluded, the man takes the young woman into the taproom and feeds her. She tells him her name is Fleur, and he notices that she eats with restrained good manners even though she is clearly ravenous. He also tells her that she is not charging enough money and gives her three times the amount she asked for, then departs.
It is enough to keep her for several days, and Fleur waits as long as possible before venturing onto the streets again. Fortunately, her first stop is an employment agency, where she was previously unsuccessful in obtaining work as a servant because she has neither experience nor references. On this occasion, however, a Mr. Houghton is at the agency looking for a governess for the five-year-old daughter of his employer, “Mr. Kent.” He interviews Fleur and, to her enormous relief, hires her.
Fleur does not know that Mr. Houghton has been waiting four days at the agency specifically for her. When she arrives at the Kent home in Dorsetshire, she finds that Willoughby Hall is one of the grandest residences in England, the estate of the Duke and Duchess of Ridgeway and their five-year-old daughter, Pamela. The duke, Adam Kent, is the man who purchased her outside Drury Lane.
Even though I have not told you nearly everything that drives this story, I hope you can see that the author has set herself some significant challenges. In fact, there are so many seemly insurmountable obstacles to a satisfying and honorable relationship between Fleur and Adam that I could not see how it could be achieved, but Ms. Balogh’s masterful storytelling carries the day. She never cheats and never takes an easy out – the characters must play the cards they are dealt honestly, true to themselves and the situation. The inherent tension kept me on the edge of my seat for much of the book (no small achievement in a genre where the happy ending is a given).
And the characters are as complex and believable as the plot. Fleur is no silly Regency twit. She carries a frightening secret and it has caused her to make some grim choices, but she makes them with self-knowledge and integrity. She may not always make the right decision (who does?) but she is never stupid. I respected her for her courage and intelligence; I sympathized with her vulnerability.
Adam starts out as a harsh man, hardened by experience, but he fascinated me even in moments when I wasn’t sure I liked him. Although he can be severe, he is a loving parent, and fair and respectful with his subordinates. It is the length and difficulty of the journey Adam must make that makes this story a powerful statement of the redeeming power of love.
The sexual tension between Adam and Fleur is wonderful, made even more potent by their belief that they must never express it. Ms. Balogh is able to confer a mere touch of hands with more emotional impact than some other authors manage in a full-fledged sex scene, and she builds the tension with exquisite control.
If you missed this book when it was published in 1991, you’re in for a treat now.
-- Judi McKee