American artist Jeremy Keane refuses to return home and take over his father’s business. He’d much rather sample bevvies of beauties abroad, in search of a model for the provocative masterpiece he’s driven to paint. When he meets Lady Yvette Barlow at a London wedding, he realizes she’s perfect for his work—and determines to capture the young heiress’s defiant spirit and breathtaking sensuality on canvas.
No stranger to scandal, Yvette agrees to be Keane’s subject—in exchange for his help gaining entry to the city’s brothels he knows intimately, so she can track a missing woman and solve a family mystery. But when their practical partnership leads to lessons in the art of sinning, can they find a bold and lasting love?
The Art of Sinning is the first book in a new series from Ms Jeffries, and is related to her previous The Duke’s Men books. In How the Scoundrel Seduces, we met Jeremy Keane, an American artist and businessman who, even though he was the rightful heir to an earldom, wanted nothing to do with the title and was happy to relinquish those rights to his cousin, Lady Zoe. Like the books in the previous series, this one has a strong mystery element running through it, but it is less prominent than before. That doesn’t mean it’s uninteresting, just that it’s lower key and allows the romance more space to develop as a result.
Jeremy is a successful artist, having gained a name for himself with his grand depictions of historical and mythological paintings, but who has since eschewed that kind of art in favour of what he describes as the “raw drama of real life”. Even though he turned his back on an earldom, he is nonetheless a wealthy man, his family having made a large fortune in the textile manufacturing business. But despite repeated pleas from his mother and sister to return home to help them manage it, Jeremy has no intention of doing so, and actually wants to sign over his half of the business to his sister.
At the ball to celebrate the marriage of Dominck Manton, Viscount Rathmoor and Jane Vernon (When the Viscount Falls.), Jeremy catches sight of a Junoesque beauty and is immediately seized with the desire to paint her. He thinks she would make the perfect model for his next project, although when he discovers that she is Lady Yvette Barlow, sister to the Earl of Blakeborough, he realises his chances of using her as a model for his next work – an allegory depicting everyday struggles and violence – are nil.
In conversation with Blakeborough, Jeremy discovers that the earl is rather worried about his sister’s marriage prospects. She is twenty-three, has a mind of her own and isn’t afraid of using it, and wouldn’t make the demure, biddable wife most men of the ton seem to want. She’s also tall, red-haired and built along athletic lines, which doesn’t at all fit with the current vogue for petite blondes. Jeremy privately thinks the men of the ton must be a bunch of blind idiots not to appreciate her, and is commiserating with her brother when the earl suggests that he commission Jeremy to paint her portrait. After all, a portrait showing Yvette to her best advantage painted by a famous artist can’t help but improve her prospects. Jeremy is reluctant, but when Blakeborough continues to insist, he realises that he might, with Lady Yvette’s co-operation, be able to turn the situation to his advantage.
Taking the opportunity to speak to her afforded by a waltz, Jeremy tells Yvette of her brother’s request and then asks if she would consider sitting for his other project in secret. Yvette agrees, but on one condition. She has a private situation to investigate which requires her to track down a woman she believes is currently employed at a Covent Garden brothel. Jeremy’s reputation for spending a lot of time with ladies of the night is well known, so he should easily be able to sneak Yvette into the establishment in question.
Naturally, Jeremy is appalled at the idea of taking a well-bred young woman to such a place, but those are her terms. No brothel, no modelling. Reluctantly, Jeremy agrees, and the bargain is struck.
Jeremy is a sexy and slightly unconventional hero and both he and Yvette are well-drawn characters who are struggling to come to terms with events in their pasts. Jeremy’s English family has no idea that he is actually a widower, and that the loss of his wife and child is one of the chief reasons he has no wish to return to America. He projects the image of a devil-may-care scoundrel, choosing not to correct the widespread assumptions made about his frequent visits to London’s brothels – but deep down, is a decent man who wants to do the right thing while also being convinced that he is not cut out for romantic love. Yvette is intelligent, witty and forthright, but had a bad experience some years previously when the man she thought loved her tried to blackmail her into marriage. She has always been conscious that her looks don’t fit the currently fashionable ideal and is worried that men are only interested in her money, so she is an interesting mix of vulnerability and confidence.
The secret sittings afford Jeremy and Yvette plenty of time to actually talk and get to know each other before things heat up between them, although there is plenty of humorous and sexually-charged banter going on right from their first meeting. I also enjoyed the relationship that develops between Jeremy and Blakeborough, which moves from an initial wariness to what looks set to become a deep and firm friendship between two men who, by their own admissions, have tended to be loners. The relationship between Yvette and her brother is also very well done; they care deeply for each other, but there are barriers between them which neither has quite understood how to cross; and I liked the way their relationship is written and how they are eventually brought closer together.
The secondary characters are strongly drawn, with Blakeborough having the makings of an interesting and attractive hero for a future book. There’s a twist – of sorts – near the end that I didn’t see coming and rather liked, and I enjoyed the story overall, despite a few niggles. One of those is that there is an incredible amount of repetition of two particular phrases. I read this on my Kindle, so I was able to count them: Jeremy says or thinks “Thunderation” eighteen times, and Yvette says or thinks “Heavenly Day” seventeen times.
If “Thunderation” was meant to be Jeremy’s favoured swear-word, I’d much rather he’d said “bollocks”, or “bloody hell”, or whatever more normally used phrases would have fit, because “Thunderation” just makes him sound like a twit. And as for “Heavenly Day”… this from a woman who is compiling a dictionary of cant terms. I’m sure that Yvette could have come up with far more creative phrases. I’m also a little weary of the hero who, for some reason, believes he is not capable of love. Jeremy certainly has his reasons for being cautious, but I didn’t quite follow the thought processes that took him from “I married my wife because she was pregnant, but I didn’t love her”, to “because I didn’t love her it must mean I can’t love anyone.”
Other than those things, however, The Art of Sinning is a promising start to this new series from Ms Jeffries and I’m interested enough in the future potential pairings glimpsed here to want to read more.