Lady Marisa Hawkestone’s nightmare is just beginning when she wakes up naked, with no memory of the night before, lying next to Maitland Spencer, the Duke of Lyttleton—a man so aloof and rational he’s nicknamed “the Cold Duke.” A scandal ensues, in which Marisa’s beloved beau deserts her. As a compromised woman, Marisa agrees to marry Maitland. But on her wedding night, Marisa discovers the one place the duke shows emotion: in the bedroom, where the man positively scorches the sheets.
Taught from a young age to take duty seriously, Maitland cannot understand his new wife’s demands on his love and affection. Marisa’s hot-blooded spirit, however, does have its attractions—especially at night. In retrospect, it seems quite silly that he didn’t marry sooner. But being one of the Libertine Scholars requires constant vigilance, even more so when the enemy with a grudge against his closest friends targets Marisa. Now Maitland must save the woman who sets his heart aflame—or die trying.
A Whisper of Desire is the fourth book in Bronwen Evans’ Disgraced Lords series, and I have to start out by saying that it doesn’t quite work as a standalone because I quickly found myself somewhat adrift, not having read the previous three titles in the series. It’s true that the author is careful to include information necessary for the new reader to get a feel for what went before, but this is unsubtly done in the form of sporadic info-dumps and isn’t at all conducive to the overall reading experience.
The overarching plot that runs through the series is that there is someone out to get the six “Libertine Scholars”, a group of men who met at school and are as famous for their intellectual brilliance as for their abilities between the sheets. Each book features one of their number, and in this, our hero is Maitland Spenser, the Duke of Lyttleton, a man so ruthlessly self-controlled that he has earned the nickname the “Cold Duke”. He has cultivated his iron control because he is terrified of ending up like his father, whose obsession with sex led him to some dark places and which saw him riddled with the syphilis which eventually killed him.
At the age of thirty, Maitland has decided it is time for him to do his duty to his title and beget an heir. He wants a demure, biddable wife who is unlikely to tempt him to feats of unbridled passion, and offers for Lady Marisa Hawkstone, the sister of one of his fellow scholars – and is surprised and not a little put out when her brother turns him down. Sebastian Hawkstone has recently married for love and, knowing his sister holds out hope of the same, doesn’t think that Maitland will make her happy.
However, matters are taken out of both their hands when Maitland and Marisa wake up naked in bed together, with no idea of where they are or how they got there. The Scholars detect the hand of the villainess who is intent on destroying them, but while they try to work out the nature of her current scheme, the gossip is spreading and there is no alternative but for Marissa and Maitland to get married, and quickly.
That, in a nutshell, is the plot. Some madwoman is out to get our hero for some still unknown reason, and the protagonists are forced into marriage. I’m a fan of that particular trope, (the forced marriage one, not the murderous madwoman one!) but it doesn’t work at all well here because there is no real relationship developing between the pair. Maitland’s worry about turning into a sexual beast and his self-imposed restraint make Marisa worry that he doesn’t desire her or is in love with someone else – which is certainly something that makes for a shaky start to their marriage. But all their concerns are about their sex life, and there is no sense of an emotional connection between them.
In fact, pretty much the entire book is about sex. Either the principals are thinking about it, kissing and touching each other and thinking about it, talking about it or actually doing it. Marisa is very, very enlightened when it comes to sex – far too much for a young woman of the 19th Century. Not only is she curious about it, she initiates it and is very laissez-faire about the sexual preferences of others. She speaks openly to her brother (a notorious rake before his marriage) and to a woman she barely knows about her sex life, and I just couldn’t buy it.
I also couldn’t buy the part of the story where, as part of the search for the evil villainess – and yes, she is referred to as a “villainess” throughout (when she’s not referred to as a “bitch”) – Maitland and Marissa have to go undercover to a notorious gaming/sex club run by a man they believe could lead them to their quarry. It happens to be a club for men who like men, and for Maitland to be suitably convincing he will have to take someone upstairs with him at the end of the night. No problem though – because Marisa can just dress up as a man and go with him and nobody will be any the wiser. I didn’t see the point of this at all – unless it was supposed to provide a bit of extra titillation. (Which it didn’t.)
The search for the villainess doesn’t advance at all within this story, and the plotline is naturally left unresolved to be picked up in the next book. I am all for concentrating on the romance in a romantic novel, but if you’re going to have a mystery sub-plot running through several books, then it needs to move on within each story; and if it is dealt with in the previous books in the same way it is here (that is – not at all!) then I can’t help asking myself what was the point of including it in the first place?
I feel I also have to add a warning about the ending, because while Marisa and Maitland do get their HEA, they are not allowed to walk off into the sunset without a care in the world. A terrible tragedy serves to bring them closer, but nonetheless puts a damper on the ending.
As is obvious, I can’t recommend A Whisper of Desire. It’s too modern in tone for an historical romance and is so light on historical detail that I have no idea when the book is set. The characterisation is thin, the hero’s issues miraculously disappear, and there is a ridiculously melodramatic incident near the end that had me laughing and rolling my eyes, which I’m sure was not the desired reaction.
Ms Evans is good at turning up the heat between her central couple and fortunately, given the number of sex scenes in the book, she writes them well. I’m just not sure what she wants this book to be. The mystery plot is almost non-existent; there are more sex scenes than are normally found in an historical romance, but not enough, er… ‘variety’ for it to be taken as an erotic romance. I’m sure it’s possible to combine these elements successfully – but unfortunately, that isn’t the case here.