Secrets of a Proper Countess (The Archer Family) Mass Market Paperback – 1 Apr 2011
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” Cornwall’s luscious Regency romance has just the right blend of mystery, manners, and passion… With truly nefarious villains, plenty of action, and a dash of glamour, this tome is a seductive read.” (Publishers Weekly)
From the Back Cover
Some secrets we take to the grave. Others we just take to bed . . .
Lady Isobel Maitland cannot afford to be caught doing anything even remotely scandalous, or she risks losing everything she holds dear. But one night, in a dark garden at a masquerade ball, Isobel gives in to temptation and lets an innocent flirtation with the notorious Marquess of Blackwood turn into passion.
The Marquess is no stranger to seduction or intrigue, and his rake's reputation disguises a deadly mission. When his mystery lover flees before he can learn her name, he knows he must find her. But all clues lead toward the prim and dowdy Isobel Maitland. It appears the lady has secrets of her own, secrets that Blackwood would dearly love to uncover . . .See all Product Description
Top Customer Reviews
It is an amazing story - well written, a marvellous plot and am looking forward to the next book from Lecia Cornwall.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
First, I was surprised by how good the writing was even though the premise sounded a bit hackneyed. The first couple of chapters are enticing, well-written, and extremely fast-paced, but with just enough humor to make you feel like you're already having fun. They are why I bought the novel.
Next, I was surprised by how cleverly the plot was set up, primarily through giving both leading characters interesting back stories. The heroine appears to be a shy, retiring wallflower in need of a makeover. My first reaction to this was hohum, grow a backbone and hire a stylist. But then you find out the lady does have a backbone, but she has a good reason to keep up her submissive facade. This made her a likable character, an underdog but not a pushover, someone you are rooting for from the beginning. It also added a real sense of suspense to the novel: Will Isobel ever come into her own? (Naturally, this being a romance novel, she does, but getting there is all the fun.)
And as for the hero? Here, the plotting was maybe a little less clever and original, but at least it answered what I think of as the "rake paradox"--I like a good rake hero now and again, but to me a rake is more of a "leading man" than a true hero. Being rich, popular and dissolute just isn't that heroic, and a rake must be either totally insensitive to his family's wishes and reputation, or actively trying to thumb his nose at them, which is just a little childish and silly in a grown man. Here, the hero has an external reason to keep up the act, so his being "brought to heel" is a little easier to swallow, and again, you have a reason to root for him from the beginning, despite the face he presents to the public.
Then there's the whole secret affair/masquerade plot device: this could have felt really gratuitous and cheesy, but actually it was sexy, suspenseful and ultimately felt necessary to the story. How else could you explain someone like the hero--a very visible, attractive and powerful man who can have anyone--falling for someone nobody else notices? Again, I felt this was a clever way to solve a common romance novel paradox--giving the reader the wish-fulfillment of the ugly duckling story without cramming in a fairy godmother.
Amusingly enough, there is a fairy godmother character, in the romance staple "quirky" cast of secondary characters. But here, this book surprised me yet again: the fairy godmother character is actually awful at the role, which was both amusing and believable. Most of the secondary characters are people with their own agendas--just like people in real life--and although sometimes those agendas serve to bring the hero and heroine closer together, other times they really get in the way, to realistic and frequently funny results. I hate secondary characters who never do anything wrong; even your best friends annoy you from time to time! The author did a good job of creating textured secondary characters, including the villains; people who felt like they had their own back stories and motivations and weren't just place holders in the main action.
Yet another surprise: once she had introduced enough characters, the author indulged in some really fun farcical scenes toward the end of the novel. Sometimes romance novel attempts at farce leave me wincing, but this is one case where I am looking forward to seeing the author's talent develop in the future.
The book did have its problems, although it was so solid that finding fault feels a little like nitpicking. I thought there was a fair bit of exposition with regard to the suspense subplot, and that the plot resolution was a little pat, involving just a little too much coincidence and convenient villain madness (but honestly, it could have been worse, and even the unsavory villains were more 3 dimensional than I'm used to seeing in romance novels.) I also felt that there was less character development than I prefer in romance novels, especially because both characters had room to grow at the beginning of the story.
In addition, I thought the author played it safe when she didn't have to. The romance novels I've read that really stand out from the crowd take the genre cliches and turn them on their ears; this novel was very smart but it wasn't really daring.
I also thought there were some interesting themes and parallels that the novel alluded to, but never explored fully. For example: I would have liked to have seen the "masquerade" theme of getting to know a lover and being unmasked reflected in the way the characters related to one another. Instead, I felt that once the obstacles to the characters having steamy sex all the time were removed, then, naturally, they fell in love. Maybe it's too much to ask for, but that's not why I read romance. Isobel in particular was more than just a secret siren; she was someone who endured a really crappy situation with a lot of forbearance, who was a really good mother, and who was a good balance of classy and fun. I would have liked to feel that the hero recognized these traits and that, at least partly, they are what he fell for.
All in all, this novel was not perfect, but it was really fun and satisfying, a surprisingly solid effort I immediately recommended to all my romance-reading friends. I can't wait to see what the author publishes next!
1.A minor offense that was very irritating was the use of the hero's title as a sentence all through the book (in italics and sometimes with exclamation marks): Blackwood!
2. The evilness of three secondary characters is described with a heaviness that hits the reader over the head repeatedly and painfully: Isobel's mother-in-law and brother-in-law are over the top: ugly, fat, EEEVIIIL, stupid, bad mannered, deranged, with no redeeming qualities whatsoever (the mother-in-law is so eeeviiil that she suggested that her second son should kill the eldest (presumably because he had become complacent and she wanted to attain more riches and social standing) and she is even willing to kill her own grandson herself). The mother-in-law's companion is also eeeviiil, mad, hateful, wrinkled, and unattractive.
3. Marianne, the hero's sister, is an airhead who does not stop talking. I think that her character is meant to be endearing and funny, but her actions are so stupid and ill timed that I wanted to kill her. She is too stupid to live, insensitive, oblivious, and inane. When she is trapped with Isobel and in danger of being killed, her thoughts turn to making herself presentable and pretty for her husband when he inevitably rescues her, even though Isobel is in agony because she doesn't know if her son is dead or alive.
4. Phineas, the hero, is supposed to be the most clever and resourceful spy of England, yet he comes across as unbelievably inept and slow. When he finally comes to a realization it is because it would have been impossible for anyone not to get it. This is true about his finally recognizing Isobel as his secret lover and at other points related to the conspiracy he is supposed to stop.
5. The book is 371 pages long, but the relationship between Isobel and Phineas' does not develop beyond the sexual aspect. They lust, lust, lust for each other (sometimes at the most inappropriate and inopportune times), but they don't really get to know each other, because their lust never allows them to finish a conversation. Their sexual encounters are supposed to be hot and steamy, but I found them rushed, awkward, and underwhelming. On a side note, Isobel believes that she could lose any contact with her son if she misbehaves in any way or is involved in a scandal, yet she has intercourse several times and NOT ONCE expresses any concern about becoming pregnant. What?!
6. I detest coincidences and contrivances used as resources to move the plot ahead, and sadly the author abuses them abundantly.
7. As I mentioned above, the book is 371 pages long, yet the ending is rushed. The last hundred pages drag endlessly and unnecessarily in the resolution of the conspiracy. All this does is highlight the ineptness of the hero and the author's shortcomings in describing the action elements of the story. Due to this, the final moments between Isobel and Phineas are limited and unsatisfying. The anticipated final love scene, in a bed and naked at last (they never saw each other naked before), takes place off stage and we are only told about it.
To summarize, the plot, the hero, and the heroine were promising; the writing was acceptable and showed potential. Sadly, the author lost her way and the story turned into a bad play with too much melodrama and not enough character development, depth, and coherence. Regretfully, I am not inclined to give this author a second chance.
Phineas Archer, the notorious Marquess of Blackwood, may hold the reputation as the worst rake in London, but as a spy for the crown, he merely plays the role of a fool to learn the most closely guarded secrets of the ton.
As a new threat to England's success in the war against Napoleon emerges, Phineas must foil a plot to kidnap the exiled Bourbon heir to the French crown. Every clue seems to lead to his mysterious lover, but while Phineas can spot trouble a mile off, and see through the cleverest of disguises, he cannot find any trace of his elusive femme fatale. No man alive would imagine the prim widow Maitland could be his dream lover. But behind the mask and the secrets, Isobel is everything Phineas has ever desired....
Secrets of a Proper Countess is the debut historical romance by author Lecia Cornwall. The story revolves around a not so merry widow, Lady Isobel Maitland, who lives under the protection and dominance of her late husband's family who uses her son as emotional blackmail to keep her and her money under their absolute control.
Our heroine was married at a young age to a man and family that despised her and her heritage, but coveted the money that she could bring to the union. The only joy to come from the marriage was Isobel's young son whom she loves dearly, yet lives in constant fear of losing. She is strong, yet demure...more out of necessity than by nature, and is constantly trying to live down her mother's notorious behavior, as well as come to terms with her own mother's abandonment at a young and tender age. Every aspect of her life is ruled by her dead husband and her in-laws...how she dresses, who she is allowed to socialize with, and it goes without saying that she is forbidden to form any new attachments, have love affairs, or consider marriage again in fear of never being able to see her son again. However, the one thing that her in-laws can't control are her thoughts and her secret desires, and she secretly desires the worst rake in London.
Our hero, Phineas Archer, the Marquess of Blackwood is from an illustrious family and is in line to inherit a dukedom. He is in his prime, and his grandfather feels that he has had enough time to sow his wild oats, and it is now time to retire his Rake status and start a family. But he has secrets of his own; he is an agent for the Crown and his Rake persona is not who he feels he truly is and longs to just be "himself" with someone therefore he has decided to retire from being a spy after one last assignment.
Secrets of a Proper Countess has a great set of characters, including the heroine and the numerous villains, whom you just love to hate. I especially thought that the character of Isobel was well written. You could feel her despair, her desire, and desperation to break free if only for a few stolen passionate moments. I just wish that I felt that I knew as much about the hero as I felt I knew about the heroine. A hero can make or break a romance for me and Phineas Archer was, in my opinion, a bit of a quandary. The reader is told that he is an agent of the crown and that he often plays a "role" while in the presence of the ton that is different than his own personality. However, I didn't feel that the persona that he presented to the Ton was any different than the person he was when he was with Isobel, whom he was supposedly himself with, which was a problem for me. Really, the whole agent of the Crown aspect of the story didn't really work for me. If this would have been a story about a Rake, a Widow, and a deviously and really vile controlling in-laws, I think I would have liked Secrets of a Proper Countess much much more than I did in the end. Not to say that I didn't like it, just that I felt it would have been a better story without the distraction of the plot involving the kidnapping of the French King.
For instance, Phineas plays an agent of the crown, yet he spends more time trying to discover the identity of his secret lover, than uncovering the plot involving the King. He assumes that the two are connected, but on very circumstantial evidence which made him seen almost amateurish in his agent skills. He takes most things at face value, and something that left me somewhat baffled was his discovery of a will during a reconnaissance mission at Isobel's home that could have set Isobel free without the fear of losing her son early on in the story yet he doesn't reveal it or confront her about this until the very end. of the story. He has no real reason to hide the information, especially when she refuses to marry him for fear of retribution from her family. You would have thought that he would have revealed this information to her, so that she could keep her son and be with him without retribution, but he doesn't. It left me very confused, because you realize that he had to have known this earlier, because what good agent would steal important looking documents and not read them at the first opportunity, so why does he do nothing until the point where it no longer matters? Of course it fits better in the plot this way, with the King kidnapping, but otherwise I thought it made him seem like an incompetent agent, as well as an unconcerned, and less than caring lover. He always seem to accept things at face value and never once questions Isobel as to why she just doesn't lead her own life regardless of what her family by marriage believes since she is a supposedly wealthy widow. It made his relationship with her seem very superficial....more about lust and mutual desire, than caring and falling in love with Isobel. As you can see I had some issues with Phineas as a hero worthy of the risks and sacrifices Isobel should suffer if their relationship were to be discovered.
Another aspect to the story that I wish would have been explored more was Isobel's relationship with her mother. Her mother left her at a very young age to be with her lover and is led to believe by her father and her in-laws that she left her daughter without looking back and never trying to contact her. Isobel fears becoming her mother, who was infamous for her lusty behavior, and vows to be a good mother to her son...something that she doesn't feel she had from her own mother. This history played a major part in who she has become, the choices that she has made, and how she presents herself to the Ton. During the course of the story Isobel discovers that her mother didn't completely abandon her like she was led to believe. Her feelings are somewhat resolved, but I wish I would have known definitively if Isobel and her mother were able to reconcile after so many years apart. There was a hint in the story that her mother may have already died, but I was never quite sure so this part of the story felt a little bit unfinished. Since it played such a large part in her development I expected this discover to have a larger impact than it did.
I mentioned earlier in the review that The Secrets of a Proper Countess has a great cast of villainous characters...and it does, almost too many of them, but in the end they all get what they deserve. Matter of fact their fate is all tied up in a pretty, almost over the top, bow. However, I do feel that a more fitting ending to her in-laws would have been public humiliation and the poverty that they feared that led to their greedy and possessive behavior, but that's just me and my vigilante justice :) I also feel though that this would have allowed Isobel to finally confront her mother in law with all of the terrible things that she did to suppress and manipulate Isobel all for her own gain and greed. Because Isobel didn't get her moment of glory and triumph in a face to face confrontation with her mother in law, in essence owning her passions and personality and claiming all that is hers, I felt she was shortchanged and that her mother-in-law's demise was too unsatisfying.
Overall, I felt that The Secrets of a Proper Countess had amazing potential, and had a heroine that I absolutely loved. She was complex and presented with situations that seemed insurmountable. It had really vile villains that I thought were so deliciously bad you couldn't believe all that they went to the lengths that they did. But as I said before, the hero usually makes or breaks the story for me. And in this book I didn't think Phineas was worthy of his task as an agent of the Crown, nor was he worthy of Isobel and the chances she took to be with him. He was lackluster for me. Add in the subplot with the kidnapping of the King which I thought could have been left out to the benefit of the story and it made a potentially great story, into one that disappointed me in a few important ways. However, it appears that I am in the minority with my criticisms of the story, because the book has received fairly positive reviews. If you've read The Secrets of a Proper Countess I would love to know your thoughts.
Overall: 3.5 stars (Though it appears that I am in the minority with my criticisms since most other reviews give this book 4-5 stars....maybe I was in a nitpicky mood when reading it)
Sensuality level: 3.25 stars (a few passionate, but brief encounters. pretty straight forward sexin' that is sure to satisfy some, and leave others wanting more)
This book was reviewed for Seductive Musings blog.
The Marquess of Blackwood is known as a rake and always out for the next good time. Really he's a spy of sorts for England and the image is worse than the reality. The Countess of Ashdown has been in mourning for over two years and is forced to dress and act as plainly as possible, in order to stay in contact with her young son, the Earl of Ashdown. At a masquerade ball she sees Blackwood and decides to have a fling and tells him her name is Yasmina.
They run into each other several times in day light, as she ends up being friends with his sister but it takes him awhile to discover who she truly is.
This is fairly action packed for a historical and while it has a couple of steamy sex scenes, it's not overly done. I look forward to reading her next book!
Lady Isobel Maitland is a widow and is forced to conform to the rules of her over bearing, and disapproving mother-in-law or risk losing all she cares about including her son. Her brother-in-law controls her money and estates and she is barely allowed to have any say in the raising of her young son Robin who holds the title Earl of Westlake that her brother-in-law covets. She is a lonely woman living an unhappy life. But one evening while in disguise at a masquerade ball she gives into temptation and has a passionate tumble with a notorious rake the Marquess of Blackwood.
The rake is totally taken with this mysterious woman having just had a very steamy encounter without ever even knowing her true name. Determined to find this exotic lady and have her again he begins to search not realizing that the prim and proper Lady Isobel, who seems to dislike him very much is actually his mystery lover. But there is more to the Marquess than just the roguish persona he presents to society. He is a spy in service to the crown and when he suspects that the woman he desires could be involved in something far more dangerous than simple deception and seduction the plot thickens. It seems there is much more to know about Lady Isobel than even she knows.
I very much enjoyed the romance between Isobel and Blackwood (Phineas). They were very passionate and very sexy together. Although their relationship started out with an anonymous sexual tryst, the romance was built up throughout the story with good romantic tension. I really liked that although Lady Isobel played the dowdy widow, she was actually a very sensual woman underneath it all doing what she had to do to protect her son.
The plot involving traitors, and the French monarchy was interesting and there were several twists and turns to keep up with making for a story that kept me turning the pages. However, while I enjoyed the action and intrigue I really enjoyed the romance and wanted to focus on getting Phineas and Isobel together finally.
Secrets of a Proper Countess is a very nice debut by Lecia Cornwall. I very much enjoyed it and look forward to reading more from her.