As I began Patricia Oliverís new Regency romance, I really thought I was going to enjoy it immensely. The premise seemed interesting. Here we have a young woman, unfairly divorced by her ducal husband, fleeing with her aunt to India, and returning ten years later, older, wiser, and much richer. But would the secrets of her past ruin her chance for future happiness?
Somehow the promise didnít quite pan out, perhaps because the romance between the heroine and the hero lacked intensity. Lady Fanny Wentworth and Colonel Derek Sheldon start off not liking each other very much and Oliver never quite succeeds in showing why or how this antagonism turned to love.
Lady Francesca St. Ives had been married to the Duke of Cranborne at a young age. Then, after flirting one evening with the man she thought she loved, Gerald, Viscount Penryn, she awoke to find him in her bedroom. Her husband arrived at the next moment, accused Fanny of adultery, beat her badly, and proceeded to divorce his wife. Fannyís
family -- except for her aunt -- abandoned her. Hence the flight to India.
Now calling herself Lady Fanny Wentworth, she is returning to England with her aunt. Her uncleís death left her a wealthy woman and she takes a keen interest in overseeing her financial holdings. She has no intention of ever trusting a man again or of putting herself in a manís power.
While Fanny and her aunt are in Calais waiting for a ship, Fanny hears a childís cry of distress and saves the girlís reticule from a thief by dint of using her swordstick. It turns out that Miss Charlotte Sheldon is a passenger on the ship the Wentworths are taking to England. Miss Charlotte is immediately enamored of the brave Lady Fanny. Her father, Colonel Sheldon, is instead rather appalled at such unlady-like behavior.
It takes a great deal of skill to begin a romance with the couple completely at odds and to show the reader how dislike is transformed into love. I have to admit that I donít feel that Oliver pulled this off. This is not to say that I have trouble believing that this transformation could have taken place. Lady Fanny is bright, beautiful and unusual, fully worthy of a manís admiration. Colonel Sheldon is handsome, kind, respectable, and brave. He has his own scandalous secrets as well. But, despite the plausibility of these two falling in love, I just didnít feel that Oliver showed how it happened.
The first breech in the hostility occurs when the colonel steals a kiss on the stairs at the inn where they are staying, a somehow unconvincing event. Then, they are thrown together when he finds her on the cliffs near Brighton in a rainstorm and ďrescuesĒ her. A convenient illness intervenes to keep Fanny at his home where the two begin by sparring with each other and end up pretending to be engaged to protect Fanny from the importunities of Viscount Penryn who has managed to turn up to pursue the now wealthy woman he once helped betray. Why Fanny feels the need to undertake a sham betrothal to thwart Penrynís suit is never made quite clear.
Geraldís appearance helps uncover the truly sordid nature of the events a decade earlier, although I admit that I am still a bit fuzzy about the motives and behavior of all the actors.
At the colonelís estate, Fanny becomes fond of Derekís sister Margaret, who has been pining for her rotund neighbor, Sir Joshua for years. Why this is the case is never made clear, for Sir Joshua is surely meant to be a comic figure and one canít help but feel that Margaret could do much better.
As I reflect on my response to Scandalous Secrets, the word that comes to my mind is disappointment. Perhaps my expectations were too great, since I have often enjoyed Oliverís Regencies in the past. There was an inconsistency to the characters and to the story that lessened my enjoyment of the book. The premise was promising, but the performance was somewhat wanting.