Lord of Secrets by Alyssa Everett

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Lord of Secrets is the story of a young woman, Rosalie Whitwell, who’s spent most of her life sailing the globe with her father. When he suffers a fatal heart attack in the middle of the North Atlantic, she turns in her panic to a fellow passenger–the moody, mysterious Lord Deal.

Having witnessed his father’s suicide years before, David Linney, Marquess of Deal, has withdrawn from society, living the life of a recluse. Even so, he’s drawn to his pretty shipmate, like him the victim of family tragedy.

The end of the voyage spurs David to propose. But on their wedding night, Rosalie meets with an unwelcome surprise: her handsome husband is strangely unwilling to consummate the marriage. Is her own lack of allure to blame, or is there some other reason for David’s reluctance? To find the answer, Rosalie must unlock the secret of David’s past.

Rating: A-

Alyssa Everett is an author whose name on a cover is already guaranteed to make me take at least a second look, even though she has only (so far) published two books. I listened to the audio version of her earlier Ruined by Rumor a few months ago and thoroughly enjoyed it, despite the fact that it relies on several misunderstandings between the hero and heroine for much of its dramatic impact – something I don’t normally enjoy. But Ms. Everett made it work. This book worked, too. She tells a good story, her characterization is strong, and she has a deft touch with humour and dialogue.

The eponymous Lord is David Linney, Marquess of Deal. He has a reputation for being aloof and anti-social, deliberately keeping himself to himself and wanting to keep it that way. On a voyage from New York to London he meets Miss Rosalie Whitwell and her cousin, Charles Templeton. Rosalie has travelled extensively over the past nine years with her father and while she yearns for a permanent home, and perhaps a family of her own someday, she is content to be her father’s companion and amanuensis. As she says at one point, her father loved to travel and she loved her father – and that was enough for her.

But when Lord Whitwell dies suddenly during the voyage, her life is turned upside down. Not only is she distraught at the loss of her only parent, she has to face the prospect of either taking employment as a ladies’ companion, or making her home with her only remaining family, her uncle, who is a drunkard with a very unsavoury reputation.

On discovering her father’s body, Rosalie, in her despair, sought help from the first person she came upon, which happened to be Deal. They had previously conversed briefly, and Rosalie had in fact made a couple of attempts to draw him into the limited society aboard the ship, but Deal insisted on maintaining his distance. Yet he is the one who makes the funeral arrangements and deals with the various other practicalities which arise as a result of a sudden death. After this, he and Rosalie begin to spend a little more time together and he learns of the options that remain open to her as an impoverished single woman.

The truth is that Deal has been taken with Rosalie since he first saw her, but tried to remain aloof from her, believing himself to be completely unworthy of the friendship – and more – of a lovely, innocent young woman.

But while he tells himself not to get involved, he can’t help doing so; their slowly growing friendship is beautifully written and reveals them to have various interests in common. It’s rather sweet when they bond over Lord Whitwell’s terrible puns. Deal is clearly very attracted to Rosalie, even though he is trying desperately to ignore it – and she is not immune to him either. The more he thinks about her and her situation and the more he hears about her uncle, the less happy he is at the prospect of Rosalie’s having to go to live with him. But when it seems she has no other option, Deal suddenly realizes that he can provide the home and security Rosalie needs – and proposes marriage.

Rosalie is stunned. Although she is more than half in love with David, she had never envisioned such a thing happening, but, as she artlessly tells him, she has feelings for him – and accepts.

Rosalie is a really engaging heroine. She’s honest, sensible, caring and not at all missish; all she wants is to be useful, and she believes she can be useful to Deal by providing companionship, perhaps breaking down some of the barriers that exist between him and his neighbors and, at some future point, providing him with a family. But once they are married, David wants to retreat from her. He won’t consummate their marriage and gives Rosalie no explanation as to why.

She doesn’t have much idea about that aspect of married life, being a respectable virgin, but she shows him affection and tries to encourage him, at first thinking that perhaps he’s not very experienced, or that his past sexual experiences have been unpleasant ones. But when she finally learns that Deal in fact has a reputation for being somewhat promiscuous, she begins to think that she must be the problem, and that he has bound himself to a woman he does not find at all attractive.

As the story progresses it becomes apparent that David’s titular secrets must be very dark indeed as he is filled with self-disgust and tormented by a deep inner loathing, desperate to keep Rosalie from finding out the sordid truth about the man she has married. He vowed to himself to tell her about his past before allowing them to become lovers, but as time passes and he finds himself falling more and more in love with her, he keeps putting it off, fearing that she will despise him utterly once she knows the type of man he truly is.

Things come to a head when Rosalie confronts David about why he won’t bed her – and the truth is harrowing. It’s difficult to say more without spoiling the story, so I’ll just say that while I had my suspicions, the truth still came as a shock. It’s not a storyline I’ve come across before in a historical romance, and I have to give Ms Everett full credit for dealing with a difficult issue in a sensitive manner.

This is Ms Everett’s second or third novel, and I certainly hope she’s going to continue to write historical romances. Her writing is clear and intelligent and she has the ability to people her stories with engaging characters who relate to each other very naturally. Both Rosalie and David were very well-rounded, and their relationship as it developed on the voyage was sweet and deftly done. As the story progressed and Rosalie began to doubt herself as David started to distance himself from her, her bewilderment and disappointment were palpable. I found myself tearing up several times in the final section of the book – it was very emotional, but never melodramatic or over the top.

In short, Lord of Secrets is an enjoyable – even if not always comfortable – and emotionally satisfying read, and I’m giving it a wholehearted thumbs-up.

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