In the "Slightly" series, Mary Balogh has been building up to this novel: Wulfric Bedwyn, the eldest of the Bedwyn bevy, has been shown to us as a mysterious and unexplicable character - cold, totally withdrawn and inapproachable, and yet always the most important person outside the two main figures to clinch the matter between them, the pattern-card aristocrat and still always the one to accept his siblings' romances with people of definitely lower class and to help them to a happy conclusion. There is a lot of love between the younger siblings and Wulfric, even if it is not shown in a conventional way. Between Aidan (the next in age after Wulfric) and him there is strain, even a kind of aggression from Aidan's side, and yet Aidan can count on his brother in a tight corner, and I am sure Aidan knows this as well as we do. Real-life people are exactly this complex, and this is why I'm sure every reader of the "Slightly" books has been agog to find out more about Wulfric.
Wulfric's facade has mostly been so strong and without cracks that it has been difficult for me to imagine him in a relationship with a woman. Is his outfit always as perfect? Does he use his quizzing-glass in bed? This has made me even more curious. And now we have a whole book about him, telling us about his feelings that he has kept hidden, revealing to us why he has become the perfect aristocrat without cracks in his facade, having him find a person who can see the Wulfric Bedwyn inside the mantle of the Duke of Bedwyn. It is totally fascinating, as if I had had a film of household plastic before my eyes, and now it is gone and I can see this Wulfric Bedwyn for the first time.
It also gladdens me that the person, who is against her will forced to see the man inside the mantle, is not a conventional type of a heroine. I might have understood with a little less convincing that Christine is a very spontaneous person bubbling with humour, but nonetheless she is very lovable. Her anxiety and distress is very real and I feel it in my body, when she inexorably finds that there really is a man inside the mantle, little though she may want to see him. Wulfric helps her to find out the truth about her past and her relationship to her late husband, and this is important, not because we now see Christine white-washed from all her supposed sins in the eyes of her late husband's relatives, but because she has let Wulfric be her friend. Friendship is not only being kind and nice to the other person and "let me hold your hand and I'll UNDERSTAND you", it is also letting the other person do the helping and understanding. In Christine's case she lets Wulfric show what he is really good at: understanding what is what without being shown a wire model, and arranging things so that everybody except the crook is satisfied.
Wulfric's and Christine's sexual relationship is believable. Christine is not one of your virgins giving up her treasure in the garden's depths during a ton party, but a widow and a barren widow at that, so I can believe that she gives in to her desires, and those desires are very believable, too. Wulfric is as much Wulfric after the heated encounter in the depths of the garden as he was before it, and I now forget that I always before thought him to be so controlled a person as not to be able to function as a sexual human being at all. Because of his self-control I now find him more sexual than many of his overtly sexual counterparts in other novels.
We now come to the conclusion that I find these characters well-written, in Wulfric's case downright excellently written, as I am at this moment duelling with a queer feeling that I am writing into the Internet an evaluation of a living person's sexuality. I have read the book several times over, and I am ready to forgive Ms. Balogh the scent of Mr. Darcy proposing to Miss Elizabeth Bennet in the scene where Christine does not accept Wulfric's proposal. Of the approximately 15 Mary Balogh novels that have hitherto come to my way, I find this book one of the absolute best.