by Lynne Connolly, historical (2009)
Samhain Publishing, $5.50, ISBN 978-1-60504-394-4
When Arabella Mason visits Ulverscroft Manor to deliver news of the death of Lewis Worth, a stewart who happened to be married to Arabella's sister, and a sealed letter from Lewis to the old earl, she learns that Lewis was the oldest son of the earl who had gone MIA in the last five years. Still, things don't turn out to be that messy as the earl and his wife are prepared to acknowledge the wedding and accept Arabella's sister and her son into the family provided that Arabella is telling them the truth.
This is how Arabella finds herself with a new "brother", her brother-in-law Peter Worsley who is not only impertinent but very charming to boot. He is supposed to accompany her to the funeral to identify the man in the coffin and verify the marriage contract, but the two of them will soon be wrapped up in the mystery of who killed the man known as Lewis Worth and why.
There is very little internal conflict in Tantalizing Secrets and Peter is actually too good to be true, which makes this story a little on the boring side. Both characters are fine and likable types. Arabella isn't a dim-witted damsel in distress but rather a sensible widow who isn't afraid to acknowledge her attraction to Peter. In a way, the author is right in avoiding contrived plot developments to force the two characters apart, because there isn't really any reason for an attractive widow and a gentleman to not have a discreet affair if they are both willing. But at the same time, the author pads the story with plenty of scenes featuring recognizable clichéd secondary characters interacting with our hero and heroine, so there is a general feel of lack of conflict in here - it's just a matter of time before Arabella and Peter decide to get married.
As for Peter, he is not a source of conflict. He doesn't care to inherit, so he's not exactly angry that his late brother may have married and produced an heir during the last five years. He also pretty much tells his parents to accept Arabella's sister and the kid if the marriage is legitimate. Also, Peter doesn't see any problems in marrying Arabella despite what some people may say about the differences in their pedigree. Not only that, he is also protective of innocent damsels, handicapped kids, and what not. A former rake, he is more than happy to embrace a more mellow lifestyle and settle down. He even treats his ex-mistress with respect and dignity because, you know, he understands women inside out. No Madonna/whore complex for Peter, thank you very much. Conflict? What conflict? I'm half tempted to marry this guy myself - did I mention that he is loaded with money? - if he was real.
The mystery is pretty underwhelming in that it follows the tradition of cozy mystery plot lines in a typical historical romance - the mystery fades to the background as the story progresses, showing up strong only towards the end when the author wishes to close the story with a bang.
This leaves me with a bit of dilemma, therefore, when it comes to Tantalizing Secrets. I like Arabella and even Peter, even if he does come off like a superhero rather than a human being here, but I find the story a little on the boring and forgettable side. This is a pleasant read, let me make this clear, and Ms Connolly is a polished writer. It's just that the story feels too slow-moving for my liking and the large number of clichéd elements (secondary characters and scenarios) only add to my sense of apathy. Perhaps it's the pacing, maybe it's the lack of conflict between the main characters, but whatever the reason is, Tantalizing Secrets is a well-written story that I have a difficult time warming up to.
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