Jun 23 2014 10:00am

First Look: Miranda Neville’s Lady Windermere’s Lover (June 24, 2014)

Lady Windermere's Lover by Miranda NevilleMiranda Neville
Lady Windermere's Lover (Wild Quartet)
Avon / June 24, 2014 / $7.99 print, $4.99 digital

Damian, Earl of Windermere, rues the day he drunkenly gambled away his family's estate and was forced into marriage to reclaim it. Now, after hiding out from his new bride for a year, Damian is finally called home, only to discover that his modest bride has become an alluring beauty—and rumor has it that she's taken a lover. Damian vows to keep his wife from straying again, but to do so he must seduce her—and protect his heart from falling for the wife he never knew he wanted.

Lady Cynthia never aspired to be the subject of scandal. But with her husband off gallivanting across Persia, what was a lady to do? Flirting shamelessly with his former best friend seemed like the perfect revenge . . . except no matter how little Damian deserves her loyalty, Cynthia can't bring herself to be unfaithful. But now that the scoundrel has returned home, Cynthia isn't about to forgive his absence so easily—even if his presence stirs something in her she'd long thought dead and buried. He might win her heart . . . if he can earn her forgiveness!

Miranda Neville weaves a deft narrative that gradually reveals the dreadful mistakes of the past with this couple’s tentative bid for a happy future. In one of the early scenes, Neville uses the brilliant set piece of a night at the theater to reunite the Earl of Windermere and his Countess, after a year apart, each of them in a box, each of them with a partner who is not their spouse.

Damian and Cynthia are flooded by memories. We’re given a glimpse of a younger Damian, hell bent on embracing adulthood when he turns twenty-one. All he wanted was, “Freedom. Freedom from the expectations for the heir to an earldom. Freedom from his father. Liberty.” How could a night of celebration with his closest friends go so, so wrong? He gambles away his inherited estate, his mother’s childhood home.

Turning away from his friends and family, Damian escapes into a world of service and discipline by joining the diplomatic corps. His “mentor and confidante” was Lord Radcliffe. When Damian returns to England, he seeks out Radcliffe, whereupon Radcliffe asks for a favor: “Claiming pressure of work, Radcliffe asked him to escort his wife to the theater. Lady Belinda did not believe in arriving at the theater early.” It’s clear that Damian and Belinda have enjoyed each other’s company in the past, and the lady would like that to continue. “He crossed his legs, trying and failing to dislodge her hand. Instead it moved upward, warm against his satin-clad thigh.”

Neville’s Georgian characters inhabit a sophisticated time where infidelity was the norm, particularly in the upper reaches of society. But Damian pushes back at Belinda, claiming travel weariness, “hoping she would take the hint and accept that the delights of the evening would not extend beyond the thespian.” There’s a sense that Damian, the consummate diplomat, is looking for something new. He seeks unvarnished truths and straightforwardness, obviously weary of the slick half-lies of diplomacy.

Guess who else is at the theater? Would that be the earl’s wife? Oh, yes. And she’s looking at a lascivious mouth-on-mouth kiss being exchanged between the actors on the stage. Her companion, Julian, the Duke of Denford, had kissed her thus a few weeks ago. She recalls:

The momentous occasion had been in a dark corner of her garden on a chill autumn night a few weeks earlier. It should have been her husband. Such intimate caresses were the right of spouses—but Windermere had never kissed her thus. This man, the Duke of Denford, had introduced her to the delight. She felt guilty for kissing another man and resented that the man she’d married had not seen to the business himself.

So here we have our two protagonists: a man who is seemingly interested in reacquainting himself with his wife and who is hoping to put infidelities and flirtations behind him and a woman who is getting her first taste of sexuality—the Kevin Costner speech from Bull Durham comes to mind, those “long, slow, deep, soft, wet kisses that last three days,”—but her guide is not, to her annoyance, her husband.

Cynthia, Lady Windermere, sees Damian in a box with Lady Belinda and thinks,

She didn’t know him as well as she knew the man at her side, but on the other hand, unlike Julian, he had shared her bed. He was her lawfully wedded husband. Back in London after more than a year’s absence, he had not sought the company of his wife. Instead he was tête-à-tête in a box at Drury Lane with another woman.

What does Damian think when he sees and recognizes her? That she is “sitting brazenly in a box with her lover.” What she doesn’t know: the circumstances of their marriage, what precipitated it, what caused him to leave her after a few weeks, what remains from that fateful night years ago when Damian lost his estate.

It was all Julian’s doing, of course. His wife was a pawn in their escalating exchange of revenge that started the night Julian had permitted the great disaster to occur. Anger and hurt welled in Damian’s chest, as acrid as ever.

Now that Cynthia knows he’s back in town, their relationship is almost like a conventional love story in reverse—Damian and Cynthia’s eventual HEA starts with a consummation that meant next to nothing to either of them. Damian is fairly certain Cynthia is having an affair with his frenemy Denford. Cynthia feels like an abandoned wife and she doesn’t make it easy for Damian to resume his relationship with her,

Six years as a diplomat had taught Damian to converse effortlessly with the most challenging of partners in difficult social situations. Neither puffed up princelings nor two-timing courtiers had ever given him as much trouble as his chit of a bride.

Perhaps some of the awkwardness is a result of the circumstances of the marriage. Naïve Cynthia didn’t realize her ruthless uncle had effectively acquired the Beaulieu estate in order to force Windermere to offer marriage to Cynthia. It’s difficult to read Damian’s memories of his first impressions of Cynthia, “Some might call the new Countess of Windermere an English rose. More like a wild flower, in his opinion. Or a weed.” He’s dismayed she doesn’t speak French, that she’s countrified—he’s a reluctant groom, “in a state of depression, contemplating the bedding of a dull virgin.”

To Cynthia, when they meet again in the drawing room of their London home, it’s the same old same old: “The fine features were impassive, the eyes a glass wall that concealed all feelings. Some things hadn’t changed. At least he’d spoken in English. So far.” For Damian, the dull virgin has become an attractive woman, not the least of her attractiveness being the allure she holds for Denford, their next-door neighbor. In a rather farcical scene, Windermere witnesses his wife kissing his friend at the gate in the wall between their two homes. There is definitely a chill in the air when Damian talks about the nobleman next door.

Tempted as she might have been, “she’d found she couldn’t commit adultery.” When Denford kisses her goodnight with surprising sweetness, saying “Better luck, next time,” what’s noticeable is that Cynthia rejects sensual satisfaction while she “badly needed comfort,” … “The pathetic truth was that she wanted Damian to kiss her sweetly and held out very little hope that he ever would.”

Neville keeps the reader engaged with the back and forth of memories and current events, especially the way Cynthia contends with the marked interest paid to her by her next-door-neighbor, Denford. Heads up here, Denford is a bit like Jo Beverley’s Rothgar—who doesn’t want to see him unleashed! At one point, he offers to escort her to a masked ball.

Attending such an event in the company of man not her husband wasn’t the kind of thing they did in Birmingham. She wasn’t in Birmingham anymore. And since her husband clearly didn’t care a rap what she did as long as he received his new clothes, she would please herself.

Given Damian’s neglect, Cynthia suspects his return is all about “siring an heir,” but there’s no conjugal visit to her room. Is he tired from his night with Lady Belinda? (Exhibit A: assumptions, beliefs, acid thoughts).

She’d picked up a good deal of gossip from Caro’s circle and knew that some men weren’t capable of performing more than once a night. Certainly Windermere had never repeated the act with her: into the room, into the bed, into her. In and out a few times then out, out, out.

Cynthia wonders if their lackluster bed performance is because she was unappealing. But no matter, she hugs “his indifference and his betrayal” to her bosom. When Damian comes into Cynthia’s bedchamber, claiming his mattress is not stuffed comfortably, and climbs naked into her bed, Cynthia is not happy.

A surge of indignation rapidly drove out admiring curiosity. What right did the man have to invade her room without so much as a by-your-leave and occupy her bed?

She freaks out.

He didn’t seem eager to pounce on her and demand his rights, but neither did he make any move to depart.

Nothing Cynthia says will persuade him to leave.

Giving up on Cecilia and on trying to understand her husband as well, she blew out her candles and settled down to sleep herself, trying to ignore the way his unclothed flesh radiated heat.

That’s not all she’s trying to ignore: Cynthia starts to fall hard. She had always thought he was beautiful but now, “His Persian tan made his gray eyes bluer. She imagined tracing the straight, firm eyebrows that added character to his face, and exploring the dimple in his chin. With her tongue.” Windermere is also succumbing to the allure of his spouse. When Denford, the rascal, says:

"Cynthia looks ravishing tonight,”

Damian snaps,

“Leave my wife out of this. Leave her alone.” His jaw clenched.

“As you have?” Julian jeered.

Julian calls Damian out on his dog-in-the-manger attitude, “You have a poor opinion of your own bride.” This brings to mind Sherry in Georgette Heyer’s Friday’s Child. Damian is torn between his past memories and his current confusion. He feels shabby and stupid, “For it was rapidly bearing in on him that his lady was no longer the dull little provincial he’d married, if she ever had been.”

Lady Windermere’s Lover also throws a spotlight on the intimacy of conversation. Brief sterile encounters with her new husband had made Cynthia feel estranged and embarrassed, but a year later “reclining side-by-side in bed, not touching, she felt an intimacy growing between them, delicate tendrils of mutual knowledge that had the potential to meet, entwine, and form a stronger bond.” It’s delightful, watching two people gradually coming to know each other as well as themselves. Even though Damian frets that his wife has been unfaithful, he patiently waits for her to have her period so he can resume marital relations and not have a cuckoo in the nest. And then … Time for seduction! His first overture, a kiss on the hands, has him hoping for amity but Cynthia is no fool. “You had a chance when we were first married and seemed to have very little interest.” She reminded him that all their conversations were in French! But Damian apologizes and acknowledges that he hadn’t listened to her. That he gave her no company during the day and no kisses at night. But perhaps chère, her luck is about to change.

He started out slowly, just a brush of his lips over hers, moving gently and resisting the urge to taste the sweetness within. He kissed her as though undertaking a diplomatic overture: make contact, assess the reception, sooth any resistance.” [] He waited, senses alert to her reactions, wanting to make their first kiss as perfect as their beddings had been mediocre. A new start for them, he thought hazily, but his attention was fixed on the physical.

What can awaken a gentle lady’s imagination? Her diplomatic husband’s pictures from Persia of course! After seeing them, Cynthia is Sleeping Beauty no more! “She was a wild thing with a yawning appetite, but not for food or drink. Hard as it was for her to admit, contrary to every precept of her upbringing, she wanted a man.” Lo and behold, her husband invites her into his bedchamber, which has been transformed into an intimate Persian seraglio, with velvet cushions strewn everywhere. Cynthia “might still be relatively innocent, but she recognized a setting for seduction when she saw it.” Damian offers her “Eating and drinking and talking, and so forth.” Since the so forth involves slyly seductive wisps of the smoke of hemp resin, a relaxed setting is pretty much ensured. At last, full circle, a couple who are delighted to be together.

He found her enchanting: prim and shy one minute, then a siren would peep out from the proper interior sending blood rushing to his groin and his desire shooting into the heavens.

“You are lovely,” he whispered. “I want to see all of you.”

And so, with the utmost concentration, he pleasured her with all the skill he could muster, using hands and mouth to adore the sweet breast, the soft belly, and finally the wet spicy gateway to her sex. “Oh Lord, Damian,” she moaned beneath the ministrations of his tongue, urging him to greater efforts.”

An excellent place to fade to black as the marital landscape of Damian and Cynthia explodes into vibrant living color!

Learn more or pre-order a copy of Lady Windermere's Lover by Miranda Neville, available June 24, 2014:

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Janet Webb aka @janetnorcal has unpredictable opinions on books. Season ticket holder of the Oakland Athletics baseball team. Social media devotee. Stories on royals and politics catch my eye. Ottawa born. Grew up on Georgette Heyer and Mary Stewart. When I rediscovered the world of romance, my spirit guide was All About Romance's Desert Island Keepers — I started with the “A” authors and never looked back.

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2. Kareni
Thanks for the comprehensive review. It sounds like a great read.
Janet Webb
3. JanetW
Thanks kahintenn and Kareni--I want to go back to the beginning of Miranda Neville's Wild Quartet and start again...and I'm a real sucker for estranged couple stories.
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