HQN / September 18, 2012 print, October 1, 2012 digital / $14.95 print, $10.99 digital
Louisa Connelly, a recently widowed Jane Austen scholar, needs some relief from her stifling world. When a friend calls to offer her a temporary escape from her Montana ranch, she is whisked into a dizzying world of sumptuous food, flowing wine, and endless temptation.
She’s an honored guest at Paradise Hall, an English resort boasting the full experience of an authentic Georgian country-house weekend. Liveried servants tend to the every need of houseguests clad in meticulous period costume: snug breeches, low-cut silken gowns and negligible undergarments.
It’s Mac Salazar, a journalist immersing himself fully, deeply, lustily in the naughty pleasures of upstairs-downstairs dalliances, who piques Louisa’s curiosity—and libido—most. He’s a dilettante straight out of a novel: uninhibited, unapologetic and nearly insatiable. But Lou’s not romantic about this much, at least: Paradise Hall is a gorgeous fantasy, nothing more. A lover like Mac is pure fiction. And the real world beckons.
I have enjoyed a number of Janet Mullany’s historical works, but this is the first of her contemporaries that I’ve read. Hidden Paradise is erotica rather than romance. The heroine, Lou, and the hero, Mac, each have several different partners in the course of their relationship, as they search for their happy ending. Double entendre intended. It’s not a fluffy novel, however; just like real people, Lou and Mac doubt each other and doubt themselves along the way. It’s a novel for fans of erotica as well as for fans of sexy women’s fiction.
Mullany’s trademark humor is evident in the snappy dialogue, but she also presents a very realistic, aching picture of how Lou is dealing with her widowhood. That was my favorite thing about this novel—how pain and humor were mixed throughout. The main setting for the story, Paradise House, is meant to be a fantasy—it’s a renovated estate in which everyone pretends to live in the Regency—but Lou finds she cannot escape her emotions there.
Lou visits the spot where she spread her husband’s ashes before she leaves for Paradise House. Her monologue to him is a mix of profane sarcasm and grief.
“I still miss you, but you know what? I’m beginning to forget bits of you. I forgot what your penis looks like, so I had to go online and find some. Don’t think I enjoyed it. Some of them were quite grotesque. You’d think if they were that butt ugly the owner would edit them into something better, but I guess it’s like no one thinks their baby is ugly. Or perhaps dicks are like snowflakes—all basically the same but each one is different. Speaking of snow, we got some last night. Again.”
“I went into your studio yesterday and looked at your stuff. I still haven’t cleared anything out. I wish you’d come haunt me. You won’t haunt me in the studio, you won’t haunt me in bed—what use are you anyway? Here I am increasing my carbon footprint with a plug-in vibrator because you won’t manifest….”
She sighed. “I’ve got to go. Things to do. You had some fucking nerve, dying and leaving me with all this. I worry about stuff, whether the roof will be okay, whether I have enough oil to last the cold weather, where the phone number for the feed guy is, veterinarian bills…Oh, good. I’m in the anger stage of grieving. I’m progressing. But you know what? I don’t want closure. I don’t want to forget. I want you back.”
Lou travels to Paradise House with the idea that she will somehow find her dead husband there in an emotional sense, but she really seems to mean that she will discover herself, the person she is now, who is living a life without him. Along the way, she has to rediscover sex and intimacy.
It’s perhaps inevitable that she accidentally encounters a man who’s being addressed as “Mr. Darcy” while he has sex with the costumes mistress. As soon as he meets Lou in a social setting, however, his interest in Lou is clear.
“Why does she call you Darcy?”
“It’s my middle name.”
“Mac Darcy Salazar?”
He nodded. “My mom likes Austen.” He bent his head and whispered in her ear, as though admitting to a perversion, “So do I.”
…He grinned that wolfish grin. “I should tell you that your strict-schoolmarm act turns me on. I love a woman who can use the subjunctive correctly.”
How hot is that?
Mac is a charming character, a journalist who is far from perfect but honest in his desire for Lou. Their scenes together flow swiftly and engagingly, even when they’re arguing, and their romantic scenes were both sexy and funny. I rooted for their romance as they fumbled through false starts and rapprochements, and for Lou’s emotional recovery as she worked through all that held her back from living again.
I took a trip to Paradise with Janet Mullany, and I got this great story!
Victoria Janssen is the author of three novels and numerous short stories. Her World War One-set Spice Brief, May 2012, is titled “Under Her Uniform” and is a tie-in to her novel The Moonlight Mistress. Follow her on Twitter: @victoriajanssen or find out more at victoriajanssen.com.