Archive | 2:00 pm

Stephanie Laurens – “A Secret Love”

14 Jan

GENRE: Romance / Historical
PUBLISHED: Avon Books, 2000

SERIES: “Bar Cynster” series, book 5

WHY THIS NOVEL: I read Suzanne Brockmann’s Kiss and Tell and it reminded me of this novel, one of my favorite novels with a nemesis-turned-lover story. So I read it.

Further info: I only read two novels by Laurens – this one and Devil’s Bride.

The back blurb:
“She was desperate for his help…
When a mysterious lady, her face hidden by a black veil, begs Gabriel Cynster for his help, he cannot refuse her plea. For despite her disguise, Gabriel finds the woman alluring and he is powerless to deny her. But he exacts payment as only a Cynster would demand: with each piece of information he uncovers, she must pay him–in the form of a kiss.
He was powerless to resist…
Lady Alathea Morwellan knows Gabriel is intrigued, but despite the sparks that fly between them, they have never passed a civil moment together. Yet as the stakes get higher, so does Gabriel’s desire for payment. And with each overpowering kiss, each passionate embrace, Alathea knows that she will not be able to resist his ultimate seduction…but what will happen when she reveals the truth?”

This book is one of my favorite re-reads despite the fact that its premise – the disguise – is rather contrived, IMO, and that it’s a story featuring a few “well-loved” romance clich├ęs.

Alathea forgoes her own season to rescue her family from certain bankruptcy (her father is a dear but just so BAD with money) and spends the following eleven years working to ensure the bright future of her step siblings (which, I think, are actually her half-siblings). She loves her family dearly, father, stepmother and step siblings and all, but the servants are more her confidants than her parents in the current crisis. She also has to lose her intelligence and levelheadedness to get to the conclusion of the story, there’s the necessary mystery, a real whopper of a wallpaper situation at the end and some rather flowery written passages (love scenes). In some way, you could even say this story has a “virgin widow” as Alathea pretends to be a widow while in fact she has never even been kissed.

And if I let myself think about it, there’s a subtle undercurrent and imbalance to the man-woman dynamic, and the roles ascribed to men and women, that leaves me slightly uneasy like in the following quote:

She wasn’t hypocrite enough to pretend she hadn’t enjoyed it, that the bliss she found in giving to him, whenever, however, brought the sweetest, deepest joy she’d ever known. In satisfying him she found fulfillment. There was no other word, none that came close to describing the breadth and depth of what she felt. He’d labeled her a “giver;” she had to accept he was right.

even if what the undercurrent implies might be a rather accurate sentiment for the time the story takes place. It’s supported by words like “drawbridge,” “staff,” or “ride” used in the love scenes and reinforced by a possessive – “mine!” – and “obsessively protective” hero.

And yet, this is one of my favorite romance novels.

A Secret Love is a story of disguises. The most visible, of course, is Alathea’s disguise as a widowed and veiled countess to enlist Gabriel’s help with saving her family from certain ruin. Laurens takes care to list several reason for Alathea doing it that way and why it works although, as I said, I didn’t buy it completely. The second “disguise” is the mystery part of the story (which works rather well) and the reason why Alathea needs Gabriel’s help: Alathea’s father signed a promissory note for a company which seems questionable to Alathea and which would mean bankruptcy if the note gets called in. Her hope is that she can prove, with Gabriel’s help, that the company is a fraud (which is where the disguise thing comes in), so making the note invalid.

But the most important disguise of the story, and the least visible, is the disguise of the true feelings between Alathea and Gabriel. Alathea and Gabriel know each other from earliest childhood. They are neighbors, and Alathea grew up together with Gabriel and his brother Lucifer as a sister. At one point, she says: “[O]ur association was decided for us, not by us.” More importantly, not just their association was decided for them, their kind of relationship was decided for them which led to their life-long problem with each other: they literally can’t stand each other. Being in each others company makes them both very uncomfortable, a feeling that developed when they were teenagers. Gabriel describes it as “feeling like a cat whose fur gets rubbed the wrong way.” It’s the unacknowledged sexual attraction between them speaking but because they were raised as brother and sister, they never saw each other as potential love interests and interpreted the feeling wrong. And yet, as Gabriel says, “I always graviated to your side” – never understanding why he did it when he felt all prickly near her. Alathea’s disguise as the countess enables them to explore another kind of relationship, setting in motion something that was always meant to be.

The main point of the story is for Alathea and Gabriel to realize that they are more than brother and sister; that, in fact, they are in love. This is present in the plot structure – it takes the first two disguises to un-disguise and discover Alathea’s and Gabriel’s true feelings for each other – but I also liked that the change is also shown with small things. For example, the use of the two names. Alathea calls Gabriel by his given name, Rupert. As the countess, she calls him Gabriel. Or the cap Alathea has started to wear as a sign of her age and spinsterhood. The cap sets Gabriel off whenever he sees it on Alathea’s head and it drives him to disparaging remarks at every meeting. In a poignant and ingenious turn at the end of the story, the cap issue is used to show the change in their relationship.

My favorite things about this story, besides thinking it well-paced and well-structured, are Alathea’s and Gabriel’s scenes together. These scenes are characterized by a sense of profound awareness of the other, be it Alathea meeting Gabriel as the sisterly childhood friend, and Alathea meeting Gabriel as the countess, that is very well done and which I liked a lot.

The first kind of situation is governed by their uncomfortable feelings mentioned above. These situations are getting more and more complicated for Alathea as she has more and more problems to keep her two personas apart and to keep her intimate knowledge of Gabriel in check. Gabriel on his side, feels oddly conflicted about Alathea. For example, he certainly doesn’t want to dance with Alathea (the fur thing), but others shouldn’t, too. Or there is the scene where he protects her from being kicked by a horse by shielding her with his body and holding Alathea in his arms, he gets seriously aroused. The situations between the countess and Gabriel are marked by strong sexual attraction which leads to quite a few steamy (despite the language) and rather long love scenes. Alathea is quite taken with the man she discovers as the countess while Gabriel falls hard for the countess and is resolved to marry her. Put together, this makes for a nice and also poignant mix of scenes between them.

Of course, when Gabriel realizes that Alathea and the countess are one and the same, one hell of a scene ensues which is the major turning point of the story and which changes everything. There are a lot of hurt and conflicting feelings, then it ends like this:

The music ended. They halted. She stood silent and still in his arms, her expression unyielding yet her whole being vibrating with suppressed emotion.
She met his gaze unflinchingly. Beyond the sheen of her tears, he saw his fury and hurt reflected back at him, over and over again.
[…] Before he could react, she pulled roughly from his arms, caught her breath, turned, and swept away.
Leaving him alone in the middle of the dance floor.
Still furious. Still hurt.
Still aroused. (202)

For the rest of the story, Alathea and Gabriel have to deal with the ramifications of Alathea’s disguise as the countess – the un-disguise of their feelings for each other. As a kind of reversal of how it was before, the work on the mystery as Gabriel and Alathea goes well (something Alathea thought could never be), whereas the intimate relationship, without problems between Gabriel and Alathea as the countess, gets nowhere (at first). Gabriel wants a marriage but Alathea suspects he’s manipulating her to get his way and that he just wants the marriage to protect her while she’s afraid she is in love with him. Their life-long knowing each other is now a major obstacle on the way to their HEA. It enables them to see through each other and at the same time, it shows again and again how well suited they are as a couple and gives depth to their relationship, making this part very interesting.

At one point, Gabriel asks Alathea:

“Don’t you think we’ve wasted enough years?”

The poignancy expressed in this question, and variations of it, is characteristic of the whole story. It’s what makes A Secret Love a favorite re-read of mine and one of my most favorite romance novels. A Secret Love is an “emotional keeper” and a book I certainly would buy again if I lost my copy.

Verdict: I really like it. (4,5/5)