Cavalier Gideon Hawkes has returned to England after an extended absence, prepared to retake his family's ancestral home at whatever the cost. Stopping in at a London tavern for some supper he makes the decision to bed one of the wenches there. His choice? Sweet young Mary Monk who, having been rendered homeless and orphaned after the Great Fire and horrifying plague, has made the painful decision to sacrifice her virtue in exchange for survival. But what was meant to be a quick romp for Gideon instead becomes a lasting relationship as he offers Mary his protection.
As the mistress of a powerful and rich man, Mary flourishes. While never really a beauty she still manages to catch the eye of many a man, including the King himself. This suits Gideon just fine as he intends to see her settled with a new protector as soon as he can bring his plan to fruition: to woo and marry the lovely puritan Celeste Southern, new owner of his family's estate. But there is a complication: poor Mary has fallen deeply in love with her paramour!
First book I've read from this author. It has a little less heat than I'm used to but the prose is well written. Will try another of her newer books.
The prose is quite dense in spots - not obscure vocabulary, but very VERY long sentences that could have been chopped up easily. The main characters aren't all that dynamic. Gideon really is an ass, going about his business of keeping Mary on the side while he courts secret Puritan Celeste Southern in order to get his house. Mary is pale and fragile and really very willing to be Gideon's doormat, except in those moments when she isn't, and her crusade to become literate is more pathetic than sweet.
Still....I kept reading and my interest didn't wane. I did like the character of Celeste, who is holier-than-thou and, at first glance, makes Lillian Gish seem like a screaming harlot. However, the scenes with her were great, sort of a portrait of the smug and justified hypocrisy of the Puritans and Cromwellians. She undertakes Gideon as a pet project of salvation, and utterly convinces herself that her pride in eventual victory is really just a tribute to God rather than her own personal vanity. She's insufferable, and her ending is no more than she deserves. She was the best-drawn character in the book, and I was glad that the final chapter was hers.
The atmosphere of the court was well-done without dwelling on the well-trod territory of Charles and his mistresses. Castlemaine makes a brief appearance, Charles is rather selfish and not the woobified martyr to love in recent HF, and Rochester isn't a fractious and naughty puppy, but a craven coward whose reputation-destroying viciousness Charles admittedly tolerates because he's amusing. It was a different take from other also-ran Restoration era novels, and so I enjoyed it. 4 stars.