|Most of us know only the drudgery of the kitchen, but there is something downright sensual about baking and cooking. Laurie Lee Gurhke is not the first to exploit this potential, and a comparison with another recent historical on this very topic, Sherry Thomas's Delicious, would not add up in her favor. Still, Secret Desires of a Gentleman is a satisfying treat.
Thanks to the help of one of her sister bachelorettes, Maria Martingale can finally open her own patisserie and make her lifelong dream come true. No more playing second cook to another haute-cuisine diva; no more proving to late-Victorian England that a woman's place is indeed at the head of a kitchen. Things go just fine until she runs into a new neighbor: none other than Philip Hawthorne, the Marquess of Kane.
Twelve years ago Hawthorne paid off Maria to stop her from eloping with his younger brother. When he runs into her again, he believes she is back to cause more trouble. Philip is determined to stop her any which way he can, but he does not bank on Maria being just as hard-headed. And so begins the battle of wills.
Maria is my kind of heroine: intelligent, strong-willed, and ready to meet life's challenges. She has had her share of knocks and is fully aware of social injustices against cooks and women, but she does not wallow in self-pity. When things don't go her way, she is quick to consider alternatives. As a wealthy peer and her landlord, Philip appears to hold the winning hand, but she has other cards up her sleeve and is quite willing to use them. The problem is I am not convinced that Philip is worth the effort.
Aristocrats on the whole are a haughty bunch, and none more so than elder sons who inherit debts and responsibilities at a young age. Philip's haughtiness and disdain are therefore quite understandable, but this does not make him particularly likeable. He treats Maria badly and holds her responsible for far too much, even though he has been lying, stealing, and living a double life for years. True, Philip makes up for his behavior towards the end of the book, but some of his gestures are so over the top they are not in character.
Despite these misgivings, watching an arrogant and self-righteous male brought to his knees is a staple of the romance genre, and Guhrke is a mistress of its conventions. The book is well-written and well-paced. It is not as smoldering, steamy or witty as some of her earlier titles, but it displays elements of her prize-winning talent. Its stuffy hero aside, I would certainly recommend Secret Desires of a Gentleman to anyone looking for some light-hearted and enjoyable easy-reading.