Her Secret Affair
by Barbara Dawson Smith
(St. Martin's, $5.99, R) ISBN 0-312-96507-9
***
Isabel Darling is the bastard daughter of a prostitute. Her mother, Aurora, was an illustrious courtesan who had affairs with a variety of nobleman through the years. She also had a habit of writing about those affairs – in explicit detail – in her journal.

That journal might not have been such a good idea, because Aurora is dead, and Isabel suspects her death was no accident. Aurora herself feared as much – her final journal entry reveals that she believes she has been poisoned by one of her former lovers. It seems that a number of them learned of the journal's existence and wanted Aurora kept quiet.

Determined to find justice for her mother, Isabel blackmails her way into the house of a nobleman, the Marquess of Hathaway. Hathaway's brother, a reverend, was one of Aurora's lovers, and Isabel threatens to publish the journal detailing his sexual peccadilloes. Since the scandal would ruin his brother (not to mention his clerical aspirations), Hathaway agrees to let Isabel live in his home as a long-lost cousin. He will introduce her to society, where (unbeknownst to Hathaway) Isabel plans to investigate possible murder suspects.

She runs into trouble in the form of Justin Culver, the Earl of Kern, who is engaged to Hathaway's daughter. Since his own father is mentioned in Aurora's journal, Kern knows about Isabel's blackmail plot. She tried to blackmail him (or rather, his father) first, and Kern is furious that she has succeeded with Hathaway where she failed with him. He vows to watch her every move and foil whatever despicable plan she's hatching.

Kern, understandably, assumes that Isabel is a prostitute, which causes a bit of a problem. Because Kern's father was such an immoral lecher, Kern has become the sworn enemy of debauchery, so Isabel's profession disgusts him. At the same time, his mind begins spinning lurid sexual fantasies about her, which further disgusts him. He is determined not to follow his father's path.

Isabel is equally determined not to follow her mother's. Contrary to Kern's assumptions, she's actually quite innocent, although she knows a thing or two about the seamier side of life. Because of her mother and her collection of prostitute "aunts," Isabel is more understanding about prostitution than any gently-bred lady could be. But she hates all noblemen, mainly because of her father. She doesn't know who he is, but she knows he's a nobleman, and his abandonment of her has hurt all her life.

So here we have a pair who are absolutely wrong for each other, or so they believe. This in itself makes for plenty of conflict, and because the two are pitted against each other in Isabel's quest for justice, their relationship seems nearly impossible. Also, Kern is engaged, and Isabel actually becomes quite friendly with his fiancée, Hathaway's daughter. What's more, there's a murderer to identify. How will it ever work out?

Actually, the mystery part of the book is divided into two questions – who killed Aurora, and who is Isabel's father? Could they be one and the same? Isabel has no desire to find the father who abandoned her, but the investigation of murder suspects makes avoiding the disclosure very difficult.

Kern initially assumes Isabel has blackmailed her way into society to catch a rich husband, but he discovers her true motivation early on, and the two enter into an uneasy alliance at Kern's insistence. The way he sees it, the sooner he helps her solve her mystery, the sooner she'll be out of his life. But as they spend more and more time together, they are drawn together by lust and growing respect and emotion. But mostly lust.

Her Secret Affair is a skillfully written book. It's lively and interesting, the characters are well-developed, and the plot is credible. Although I did guess the identity of the murderer within the first few chapters, that discovery didn't ruin the book for me (although it did make the hero and heroine seem a tad dense at times). But despite these merits, I can't really recommend the book, because I can't say that I truly cared about these characters.

I was certainly interested in them. The book never failed to hold my interest, and it was definitely an entertaining read. But while I kept reading to see what happened to the characters, I just didn't feel emotionally invested. I assumed they'd find a way to be together in the end, despite all their obstacles, but I wasn't really cheering them on.

And I think the main reason for this detachment was that I didn't get to see enough interaction between them that didn't involve sex. There's so much intense sexual desire between them, constantly, that they can hardly have a conversation. Don't get me wrong, I like intense sexual desire just fine, thank you. But I wanted to see more emotional interaction between them. I wanted to see that they were made for each other, heart and soul, and I just didn't find that anywhere in the book.

So, if you're in the mood for an entertaining read with interesting characters, Her Secret Affair might fit the bill. But if you're looking for real emotional investment, I can't say you'll find it here.

-- Ellen Hestand


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