Devourer of books with a preference for fiction. Quite good at competitive reading. Happily hoards books of all kinds. Gets stabby going too long without reading.
On his twenty-first birthday, Damian, Viscount Kendal, drunkenly follows the advice of his friend Robert Townsend and gambles away Beaulieu, the estate he has inherited from his beloved departed mother, then he passes out dead drunk. Unfortunately, Townsend had even more of a drinking and gambling problem than Damian and promptly lost the property to someone else. Damian is forced to return to his father, hanging his head in shame, promising to do whatever it takes to reform and help re-purchase the property. He cuts off all contact with his dissolute school friends and throws himself into a career in the diplomatic corps.
Seven years later, having inherited his father's title as Earl of Windermere, Damian has tracked down the man currently holding the deed to Beaulieu. The merchant in question doesn't want mere money to relinquish it, however, he demands that Damian marry his niece, Cynthia, a young and awkward woman who Damian just assumes is as grasping and social climbing as her uncle. He makes absolutely no attempt to actually get to know his shy, inelegant wife, demands that she speak to him in French whenever they actually do spend some time together (she only learned French at Finishing School, so isn't exactly fluent). He resentfully consummates the marriage, but leaves on a diplomatic mission to Persia after only a few weeks. He leaves orders that Cynthia stay at Beaulieu and have it refurbished for when he returns.
So imagine his surprise when he arrives back in London, nearly a year later, having barely corresponded with his wife in the time apart, to discover that she's not following orders and languishing away in the countryside. She is no longer retiring, plain and socially awkward. She is an elegant and ravishing society beauty and currently spending an awful lot of time with his former best friend, Julian Fortescue, the Duke of Denford, whose town house is right next door to his. There are a lot of choice rumours, all of them suggesting that Lady Windermere has taken a lover while her husband was off serving his country. All signs point to Denford being said lover.
Damian's current orders force him to put aside his enmity with Denford and try to rekindle the friendship they once shared, as the a Prussian Prince wants his hands on an art collection Denford is said to be in possession of, and diplomatic negotiations demand that the Prince stay happy. While Damian is unwilling to risk his career, he is not at all happy with the amount of attention Denford is lavishing on Cynthia and becomes determined to win his wife back. He quickly discovers that he knew absolutely nothing about the woman he married and didn't care to find anything out before he abandoned her. She is rightfully deeply hurt by his treatment of her, and has no intention of giving up the company of friends she made while he abandoned her for the best end of a year. Can Damian grovel enough to ever gain his wife's forgiveness?
I have rated this book 4 stars, despite the fact that for most of the book, I wanted to punch Damian, erstwhile Viscount Kendal, now Earl of Windermere hard in the face, and then kick him in the balls. He is a complete d*ckbag, who takes his disappointment and resentment from fixing a mistake he himself made out on the innocent woman who is saddled with him in matrimony. Instead of giving his mother's property up as lost when he himself drunkenly gambles it away, with no care for the consequences, he instead not only cuts all ties to his best friend, Julian, who he blames for not being persuasive enough to drag him away from the gambling table before he lost his mother's estate in a drunken stupor. It also turns out he used his father's influence to sabotage a lucrative art transaction that could have been the making of Julian, to make really make sure their status as friends was well and truly over. For so much of the book, Damian is a self-centred idiot, completely incapable of taking responsibility for his many weaselly actions.
So how is it that I haven't rated the book lower, I hear you asking? Well, because Lady Windermere herself and the man she pretends to have an affair with, Julian Fortescue are both delightful and I liked all their interactions with each other, or others. Poor Cynthia was so infatuated with the handsome man her uncle wanted her to marry, and while she didn't have any of the greed or social aspirations that Damian imagined, the other alternative for a husband her uncle had suggested, the rapey manager of his many factories, was just not an option anyone in their right mind would pick. Her illusions about her handsome husband are shattered pretty quickly, with him treating her at best callously and at its worst abominably, but once he leaves for his diplomatic mission, Cynthia quickly realises that she can turn her status as a Countess into something good.
As her husband ordered her to redecorate Beaulieu, she reasons that she can't very well do that from the country and travels to London to find inspiration. Caro Townsend, from The Importance of Being Wicked hears that she is in town and quickly befriends her, telling her stories about what Damian was once like, when he was friends with Townsend, Lithgow and Fortescue. She also helps Cynthia find a decent dressmaker, and Cynthia begins to turn herself into the ultimate diplomat's wife, taking French lessons and striving to learn all the things her Finishing school didn't already teach her. As time passes and she spends more time with her new friends, Cynthia also grows a backbone and realises that she doesn't deserve the sort of treatment she's received.
She likes the idea of making Damian jealous, and what better way than to start flirting outrageously with his former best friend? She's fully aware that Julian has his own reasons to keep trying to seduce her, probably some kind of revenge for the slights he's experienced from Windermere. Of course, except one kiss, that makes her feel intensely uncomfortable, Cynthia never actually does anything with Julian. She just makes her husband think that she does. She also fills his town house full of atrociously ugly furniture and artwork, which she is purposefully overcharged for by a clever tradesman. The money she embezzles goes to fund a safe house for young women who've been abused by her uncle's foreman. Pregnant or with young children, they have nowhere to turn, and Cynthia has made it her mission to keep them safe.
It takes the best end of the book before Cynthia even deigns to consider her cad of a husband. I think she should have made him suffer a lot more, and grovel more comprehensively, but it is established that she is a deeply kind-hearted and generous woman, so it was probably never in her nature to be cruel to him in return. Miranda Neville's writing is good enough that I really liked this book despite the horrible hero. If there is ever a "years later" sequel written, I would not be unhappy if it turns out that Lord Windermere died in some sort of painful and horrible way. Cynthia may have forgiven him by the end of the book, but I haven't.