|Lessons of Desire is set mostly in a little-used location for romance novels: Italy, bookended by sections set in more-traditional England. It was this unusual use of locale that first intrigued me, and the rest of the story doesnít disappoint.
Lord Elliot Rothwell is on a mission to safeguard his familyís reputation. Elliot is a renowned historian and the younger brother of the Marquess of Easterbrook, and if rumor is to be credited, their family is about to be disgraced in a new memoir by the late Richard Drury. Drury was a somewhat-radical MP, and his memoir supposedly accuses Elliotís late father of having murdered his wifeís lover. Drury left his manuscript in the hands of his illegitimate daughter and heir, Phaedra, who plans to publish them. Elliotís task is to try and stop it.
First, he must find Phaedra. Sheís in Naples, Italy, and Elliot doesnít mind traveling there, as it will coincide with a planned trip to Pompeii for his own upcoming volume on Roman antiquities. When he arrives in Naples, itís to find Phaedra under house arrest for causing a duel between two courtiers. Elliot secures her release with the promise that heíll take responsibility for her, and due to a misunderstanding, itís assumed heís also her fiancť.
Phaedra, the product of a longtime affair between her mother and Richard Drury, chafes at the restrictions placed upon women of her time. She believes men only wish to possess women, and to that end, she refuses to play the role assigned to her by society. She wears her red hair down, dresses mostly in black, has had a number of lovers she calls ďfriendsĒ, and steadfastly refuses to marry. When Elliot has her released from house arrest, she tries to run away, and he catches her. After discussing their mutual plight, they come to an agreement: Phaedra will eliminate all references to the Rothwells if Elliot can prove that the allegations about his father are false.
Together, Elliot and Phaedra travel to the house of a friend in the country, hoping to find some answers. Itís here that they become lovers, though Phaedra declares no man will ever possess her. As their relationship deepens and they begin to truly understand one another, both will have their beliefs challenged and will need to change their thinking. Elliot isnít the only one trying to solve a family mystery, either; Phaedra has questions about her own motherís death. Their quest will eventually lead them back to England.
Phaedra is a unique character, and at first, she seems a bit over-the-top. Her manner of dress and lack of compliance with societyís conventions felt as though it would land her in more trouble than just house arrest. Hunter gradually allows us to see the motivations behind her actions, however, and they are indeed heart-wrenching in some ways. Phaedra has deliberately chosen her course in life, and thankfully, the author doesnít have her sermonizing about it to everyone she meets, but this choice didnít come without a price.
As Elliot begins to understand Phaedra and her life, he opens up to her about his own upbringing, which was no less troubling. These are two people who have much in common, and perhaps no one else would understand them as well as they do each other, making them perfect romantic complements. Well done, Ms. Hunter!
Lessons of Desire is well worth your time. Elliot and Phaedra are no run-of-the-mill romance leads; Hunter makes them into interesting individuals with faults and virtues we can all identify with. Their growing friendship makes their romance charming and believable, as well. As always, the prose is smooth and luscious; Madeline Hunter is a master at her craft. This is one of the better romances Iíve come across this fall, and I highly recommend it.