|Sometimes a book sticks with you because of the romance and the main characters. Other times it is the subject matter that stays in your head for a few days. In the case of The Defiant Mistress, the setting (London in 1666) and secondary characters are the things that have stayed with me as I have contemplated this review.
In 1658, Athena Frances Fairchild was living in London away from her mother and stepfather because she was afraid of her stepbrother Samuel. While living with her elderly aunt, “Frances” met a young apprentice named Gabriel and fell in love. On the day of their planned wedding, Samuel found Athena and blackmailed her into wedding and bedding him. He convinced her that her fiancé was about to be a traitor to Cromwell, which would result in his execution. He also held her aunt and threatened to kill her if she didn’t “willingly” come to his bed. He then had a henchman lie to Gabriel and bring him to a brothel, where he observed the wedding night. Athena endured Samuel for three weeks. When she realized that she could steal the evidence against Gabriel and run away, she did so. She ran to her aunt in France, who helped her enter into a convent as a guest so that she would remain safe from Samuel. She stayed there for eight years.
Meanwhile, Gabriel, believing the worst of his “love,” went on to travel and become a rich merchant ship owner. He also inherited a title when his two older brothers were killed in separate accidents. He never married, having learned the hard way how manipulative women could be.
It is now 1666. Gabriel is in Venice on a buying trip. Athena has just arrived, having been a companion to a young woman who wanted to come join her husband, who works at the Embassy. Their meeting is anything but nice. Athena believes that Gabriel abandoned her, having been told by Samuel that Gabriel had never even shown up at the church for their wedding. Gabriel, of course, has never forgotten the image of her giving herself to another man. When the Ambassador asks Gabriel to provide escort to Athena so she can return to England, Gabriel envisions making her his mistress as revenge against her deceit.
Athena is a cousin of Jack, the Duke of Kilverdale and a nobleman from Sweden, Jakob because their mothers are all sisters. This story introduces a trilogy about the three of them, set against the backdrop of the fire that destroyed much of London in 1666. Jack finds out that Athena is in Venice and sets out to meet her in order to escort her back. One of the twists of the story involves Gabriel intercepting his letter and thinking that Athena is Jack’s mistress. He rushes Athena to leave Venice and Jack pursues. Jack then meets up with Jakob and the two join together. The views we get of Jack and Jakob are intriguing and whet the appetite for their stories. They seem like much better heroes than Gabriel.
The Great Fire and the political atmosphere of the Cromwellian era are an interesting backdrop to the story, creating a scenario for the climax of the story that was unique.
Unfortunately, neither Athena nor Gabriel stand out as characters that one wants to see reach their happily ever after. Athena is naïve, stubborn and rather dense, at times. She both wants to believe the best of everyone and yet, she immediately believes the worst. She was easily convinced that Gabriel could be a spy when Samuel confronted her, and yet, just as quickly was convinced by Gabriel that he was not and never had been. She isn’t quite at the “too stupid to live” level, but she comes very close. Gabriel is cynical and rather mean, wanting Athena to suffer for what he perceives as her sins. When she finally tells him the truth, he “suffers” because of his pride that she would try to save him, the man, rather than tell him so he could save her. He was a difficult man to like.
There are some entertaining moments in The Defiant Mistress and they generally revolve around Jakob and Jack. I look forward to their stories and am thankful I read this one so I have the background, though this romance didn’t really satisfy.