|What turns out to be a prequel to Mary Balogh's early 2000's Mistress duology, The Secret Mistress is the somewhat hair-raising tale (at least from a time period and an author who are generally pretty tame) of Lady Angeline Dudley, sister to those naughty Dudley brothers from No Man's Mistress and More Than a Mistress.
Lady Angeline has, since the death of her parents, basically lived as an orphan in the Dudley's country manor. Her eldest brother, the new duke, left home at a young age and the younger brother wasn't far behind him. Eschewed by her governesses, Angeline is rowdy at best and downright improper according to some people.
Too bad for Angeline that one of those people is the Earl of Heyward.
After a few unavoidable delays, Angeline is finally making her coming-out at the unfashionable age of nineteen. Regardless, the daughter and sister of a duke will not fail to make a good match, for all that her brother all but turns suitors away at the door.
Angeline, however, already has her eye on somebody. It does happen to be entirely a coincidence, but the super-proper Earl of Heyward is considered the most eligible bachelor of the Season; naturally, the newly-named earl's family wants him to settle down and the most sought-after lady turns out to be the perfect match. After rescuing a loudly-dressed and just plain loud Angeline from an improper scene in a tavern on the way to London, the Earl had already written the unfashionable lady off even before he realized her name and rank. Though gentlemanly behavior required that he make sure she was safely away from the lascivious hands of a known rake, that was as much as Edward ever wanted to do with the woman.
Then their families started throwing them together, though the duke (who had no love for stuffy Edward since he had been great friends with the rowdy deceased Earl of Heyward) objects. And Edward, a second son and certainly not comfortable with his newfound popularity, lets himself be drug around by the nose - at least until he finds himself kissing Angeline under a starlit sky.
No one saw, but Edward Ailsbury still felt that duty calls - plus, the woman he had thought he was going to marry had just turned him down for the second time. His proposal lacksanything even somewhat resembling romance or interest. Angeline, heart breaking, turns him down flat and proceeds to try to convince his former lady to make a reconciliation.
The following intrigue is a bit lame even for a Regency-era read, but readers will forgive Angeline and Edward, though their character foils leave something to be desired. Of course, Edward Ailsbury would never be so tawdry as to have a mistress, but the title of the book is explained toward the end as the lovebirds are finally getting their true stories straight.
Littered with strong characters that one nonetheless has a hard time growing attached to, The Secret Mistress is still a lovely addition to the Dudley tales. The duke's presence in this novel is remarkable - he's likely the most vibrant character, though he is closely followed by his sister Angeline. Nothing about The Secret Mistress is terribly inspired or even complicated, yet readers will find the story and the two couples outlined in it to be terribly endearing. This novel will head toward to the top of my Mary Balogh favorites, not too far behind A Matter of Class and A Secret Affair.