Nov 6 2011 11:00am

Fresh Meat: Joanna Chambers’s The Lady’s Secret (Nov. 7, 2011)

The Lady’s Secret by Joanna ChambersJoanna Chambers
The Lady’s Secret
Carina, $5.99, Nov. 7, 2011

London, 1810

Former actress Georgiana Knight always believed she and her brother were illegitimate—until they learn their parents were married, making them heirs to a great estate. To prove their claim, Georgy needs to find evidence of their union by infiltrating a ton house party as valet to Lord Nathaniel Harland. Though masquerading as a boy is a challenge, it pales in comparison to sharing such intimate quarters with the handsome, beguiling nobleman.

Nathan is also unsettled by Georgy’s presence. First intrigued by his unusual valet, he’s even more captivated when he discovers Georgy’s charade. The desire the marriage-shy earl feels for his enigmatic employee has him hoping for much more than a master-servant relationship...

But will Nathan still want Georgy when he learns who she truly is? Or will their future be destroyed by someone who would do anything to prevent Georgy from uncovering the truth?

As Myretta Robens so lucidly wrote in Learning The (T)ropes of Historical Romance, there are no new tropes. So what a pleasure it is to be stopped in one’s tracks by an extraordinary debut, one that combines two enjoyable tropes, the stolen inheritance and the chick in pants.

Georgy, the heroine of Joanna Chambers’s The Lady’s Secret, is a part-owner of the Camelot, a not particularly notable stage company. Her brother Harry hares about the English countryside looking for proof that their deceased parents married legitimately, which would make Harry the earl of Dunsmore (albeit the son of an earl who married an actress once upon a time) and his sister a lady. Harry and Georgy are frustrated, and therefore snap at each other, each envying the other’s life:

“Don’t you think I’d like a spot of adventure for a change?”

The story feels familiar; but lest you get complacent about what lies ahead, we travel far from“been there, done that” territory. Yes, an inheritance is at stake. Yes, our heroine is ripe for an adventure of her own. Harry needs to get inside Dunsmore’s country house so that he can look for those all-important marriage lines. Definitely easier said than done, as Lily Hawkins, the intelligent and beautiful lead actress of Camelot, and Harry discuss:

“… isn’t the most likely place to find any evidence—if any evidence still exists—at the Dunsmore estate?”

“Oh, of course!” Harry said in a sarcastic tone. “Thank you for that, Lily. I should call on my cousin, the imposter earl. Ask him to let me see the family records. I’m sure he’ll be delighted to oblige me.”

Since Harry is known to the earl, Georgy proposes to “infiltrate” the earl’s household by offering her services as a maid. Unfortunately, the Dunsmore household is not hiring. Plan B is required; an opportunity arises when the popular and desirable Lily has dinner with Lord Nathaniel Harland (psst, he’s our hero!). Nathan would be labeled a metrosexual today, a descriptor that doesn’t do him justice:

Through knowledge and experience came discernment. Taste. Nathan was a man of exquisite taste. Discriminating. A nonpareil. Envied by all the young bloods. Thirty-three and still enjoying an unfettered existence, doing as he pleased, indulging his varied interests. His wine cellar and his stable were coveted. His tailor’s identity he kept a closely guarded secret, and the moment he discarded a woman she would have half a dozen men vying for her favours. Lately though, he’d found himself feeling a little—bored by it all.

Doesn’t Nathaniel sound like a cross between the heroes of Heyer’s The Corinthian and Frederica? During the course of the evening, Lily watches Dunsmore, the putative earl, invite Harland to his country estate for a Christmas house party. Lily also learns that Harland is looking for a new valet. He tells Lily that he dreads “the prospect of training a new man” because he’s set in his ways.

“I detest chatter,” he confided. “I put up with enough of it from the rest of the world—in my club, in the park, at balls and parties. The one time I can have peace is when I am in my own rooms. Jarvis observes my golden rule, which is that I must have silence in the morning.”

“Is that all?”

“Not quite. I am also particular about the person of my valet.”

She raised her eyebrows in a knowing way and he laughed.

“No, not like that. What I meant is that I have certain standards. A gentleman spends a great deal of time with his valet each day and I cannot abide a person who smells like a pig or whose palms are damp.”

There’s no prize for guessing that Lily tells Harland she may have a valet in mind and that Georgy gets the post. “Chick in pants” books often emphasize the physical transformation of a woman to a man through clothes and hairstyle and the all-important bound breasts, but Chambers focuses on a vital trigger, smell. Actress Lily transforms Georgy into the very model of a gentleman’s gentleman but something is off:

“You don’t smell right. Wait—I have something.” She hurried off and returned within moments with a small jar. “It’s pomade,” she explained. “Sir Nigel left it here.” []

Georgy dipped her fingers in and rubbed a little bit of the waxy stuff between her thumb and forefinger, warming it. The scent intensified. It made her think of forests, dark and woodsy. Of pine. It was anything but feminine. She rubbed it between her palms so that it coated her hand slightly and quickly ran her fingers through her hair, letting her hands drift down behind her ears and down her throat. She rubbed the last of it over her wrists.

When she had finished anointing herself, she smiled. “How’s that?”

Lily stepped forward again and sniffed. “Much better. You smell like a man now.”

The intimate, private world of the valet/master relationship is at the crux of The Lady’s Secret. Objects, like gleaming leather boots, experiences, like steaming hip baths, presentations, like an orange cut in perfect eights each morning, become talismans. Scientists have proved what we intuitively know: smells—or in the more flowery language of romance, scents—can transport you to a place known only to your memory.

An alternative title for this book, particularly in the opening chapters, might be The Gentleman’s Dressing Room, a place redolent with scents and textures. This gentle reader was thrilled to discover that Georgy has to shave Harland twice a day.

Georgy went back to the dressing room and her preparations. She poured half the kettle into a basin that stood beside the chair Harland liked to be shaved in, and added a few drops of scented oil to it. It was Harland’s own blend and it smelled of cloves and cinnamon, a spicy and clean smell that was absolutely him. []

In the evenings, he preferred to be shaved while he took his bath. He liked baths. Tom and Jed cursed his fastidiousness, since they had to carry the water upstairs. Jed swore it was unhealthy to bathe so much. Georgy sympathized with their complaints, but secretly she thought she would bathe every day too, if she were an earl. Bathe every day and eat oranges and purchase hats and boots of such extraordinary magnificence that no one, even a woman, could help but covet them.

Valet George Fellowes, although he’s “absurdly young” for such a post, proves to be very satisfactory. His master doesn’t see beyond his valet’s competence because why would he? But one day, after Fellowes says, “Very elegant, my lord,” something changes.

Harland has a busy social life and one night he comes home very late. What would Heyer say? He “shot the cat.” The morning after the night before, Georgy shaves an ashen-tinged earl. She can still smell brandy on him and she suggests that there’s something she could do that might ameliorate the pounding in his head.

Please—close your eyes, my lord.” He did so while Georgy cast around for some kind of unguent. There was only the scented oil. She opened the bottle and shook a small amount onto her palm, then quickly rubbed her hands together, spreading it evenly. The spicy scent drifted up to her nostrils and she saw Harland’s expression relax slightly as the same familiar aroma reached him. Taking a deep breath, she laid one hand on either side of his face, her palms cupping his jaw on either side, her fingertips meeting in the middle of his chin. Gently, she exerted some upward pressure.

“Oh, that’s good.” Harland sighed.

Harland’s involuntary physical reaction to Georgy’s effective head massage has him idly wondering about his valet’s sexual persuasion. One day at the park he spots Fellowes on his afternoon off in the company of the popular and desirable actress Lily Hawkins. They are clearly very comfortable in each other’s company and to Harland’s surprise, they embrace and kiss.

Knowing that something is inevitable—that Harland will discover that his valet, George Fellowes, is not a young man—doesn’t necessarily diminish the effect or the satisfaction of the occurrence. Given the preponderance of baths and steam and scent and oils, perhaps it is unsurprising that Georgy would eventually want to slide into Harland’s bath herself. Which she does, one evening after Harland has left.

She let herself back into Harland’s bedchamber, kicking the door closed behind her. She was grinning as she skipped into the dressing room. A bath! She couldn’t remember the last time she’d had a proper bath. She poured the whole kettle of water in and leaned over to feel the rising steam on her face, inhaling the scent of cloves and cinnamon, the spicy evocative scent of her master.

This would, of course, be the one night when our hero returns home just after leaving for the evening. I will leave you with the scene that meets his stunned eyes:

Fellowes’ hand went to his cravat next. He undid it carelessly and it slithered to the floor. Now his shirt gaped at the neck, revealing his pale throat. In one swift movement, he pulled the shirt over his head and tossed it to the floor to join the breeches and cravat. Nathan frowned at what he saw: Fellowes’ torso was bound in linen, from breastbone to waist. His first thought was that it must be an injury. Fellowes loosened something underneath his left arm and began to unwind the linen. Even in the dim light, Nathan could see how slender Fellowes’ arms were, how hairless he was, how fine his clavicle bones. His skin was creamy and soft-looking. Nathan’s brain struggled to process what his body had already realized, but by the time Fellowes unwound the final layer of linen and let it drop, Nathan had finally worked it out and managed not to gasp aloud when soft, pink-tipped breasts were revealed.

It would be unfair—and spoil your delight in the story—if I were to reveal what happens next. The two of them go to Dunsmore’s country estate where Georgy vigorously attempts to find the crucial marriage documents. The Lady’s Secret’s level of sensuality and intimacy is phenomenal, while the level of writing and involvement is mature and excitingly original.

Janet Webb

Subscribe to this conversation (must be logged in):
1. willaful
Ah Janet, I *wondered* why you hadn't reviewed it at GoodReads.... way to tantalize!
Janet Webb
2. JanetW
Have you reviewed it yet? It was so hard not to talk about it -- now I can't wait to read and hear what others have to say.
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