David, Lord Delacourt, has earned a public reputation amongst the ton as an indulgent and dissolute rake. While spending an afternoon at the racetrack, David's friend, who is too busy enjoying his winning streak, offers David the services of a pretty doxy that is waiting for him in the stables. This type of woman isn't really David's preference, but bored and feeling out of sorts, he decides it can't hurt to take a peek. When he arrives at the stables, David spies a naked woman who is lovelier than any girl he has ever seen. Believing that she is the woman his friend had mentioned, David sneaks up on her and begins to seduce her. The young lady reacts with a mixture of shock, confusion and desire, but before things go too far, they are interrupted by two other men, one of whom says he is her brother, the Earl of Sands. Immediately brought to mind are thoughts of David's own terrible family secret, which makes him feel intense remorse for the horrible mistake he's made. He promptly drags the lady, whose name is Cecilia, off to the home of Jonet Amherst, who is secretly his half-sister, and her husband Cole, who is a minister, with the intent of marrying her right away to save her reputation, but Cecilia actually has the audacity to refuse. Cole manages to smooth things over by suggesting that they announce a pretend betrothal and after a suitable amount of time has passed, Cecilia can simply break the engagement. This is exactly what happens except that the more time David spends with Cecilia, the more he realizes that he wants the betrothal to be real, so he sets about trying to court her. Unfortunately, her involvement with him has peaked the interest of several other men as well. Because of her youth and inexperience and David's unsavory reputation, Cecilia soundly rejects his overtures in favor of a proposal from a "safe" gentleman who is more than twice her age, but he dies leaving her a widow after only two years of marriage. David for his part has spent the last few years desperately trying to avoid her.
To fill the emptiness in her life, Cecilia decides to do hands-on volunteer work with the Daughters of Nazareth Society, a charitable mission devoted to reforming prostitutes which is run by Cole. Jonet and David's mother have decided that he is long overdue to marry and have been mercilessly matchmaking, but the only woman who has ever sparked David's interest in marriage was Cecilia and that, he believes, is long over. Jonet has been having a particularly tiring pregnancy, so she and Cole are soon to be leaving London to spend the remainder of her confinement resting in the country. Cole challenges David to a game of cards with the stakes being that David take over Cole's position as director of the mission while he's gone. David has no idea that Cecilia works at the mission and that Cole's main intent is to bring them back together. David is the superior card player and thinks he will have no trouble at all winning, but Cole resorts to a bit of trickery to come out the victor. David isn't too pleased with this turn of events, but since a gentleman never welshes on his bets and he's rather bored and unhappy with his life, he decides a change of pace might be in order.
David reports for duty at the mission as scheduled. He and Cecilia are both shocked to see each other there, but sparks begin to fly as they almost immediately start arguing (though rather endearingly) over his presence there. Their conflict is rather short lived though, when David begins to feel compassion for the hardships that the women at the mission have suffered, and Cecilia begins to see a side of David she never realized he possessed. Also, when two young women from the mission are brutally murdered and another's life appears to be in danger, they must join forces in a dangerous investigation to find the killer. Then as their love and passion for each other blossoms, David must face the need to be honest with Cecilia about his dark family secret, but he fears that it may mean the end of their relationship.
A Woman of Virtue did not seem to have quite the emotional depth of Liz Carlyle's other books that I have read to date, but it was still a fun and enjoyable read. As with her other books, Ms. Carlyle has combined romance with a mystery. The romance part was generally light and breezy, beginning with the hero and heroine bickering like cats and dogs. Sometimes I can find this type of relationship irritating, but here it was handled well, in my opinion, and it didn't take long before these two realized that they had always loved each other. The mystery was pretty well-done too. I wasn't pulled into it quite as much as I have been with other mysteries I have read, which I think was a result of the author not dropping quite enough clues along the way. The thing I really liked about it though, was a surprise villain, as I didn't even guess who it was until shortly before it was revealed in the story. There are a couple of things that I missed in this book that were present in some of Ms. Carlyle's other works, one of which was her masterful use of children and pets to set the tone and create a family atmosphere. Unfortunately, the only children who made an appearance were Cole and Jonet's, but it was very brief and they didn't add much to the story. The only pet was Max's dog, Lucifer, and since Max was a secondary character, Lucifer didn't get a great deal of attention or add much to the story either. The other thing was that although A Woman of Virtue had plenty of beautiful sensuality, I thought it was a bit lacking in the gorgeous romantic interactions and the building of a deep friendship between the hero and heroine that Ms. Carlyle has previously been so talented at creating.
I found the main characters to be very likable. David may have been a rake, but underneath it all he was a kind and gentle man, who had really only ever loved one woman. He had a rather dark secret that he had kept hidden for years that caused him some emotional angst. I found his vulnerability over this and his fear of being rejected to be very human and endearing qualities. I also appreciated his understanding that the only way to have a real and lasting relationship with Cecilia was to be completely honest. I loved his protective nature toward all women. When he rescued a prostitute who was being assaulted, I just knew he was a great guy. Cecilia was free-spirited and head-strong, rarely listening to David, but she was also an intelligent and capable woman who was able to do bookkeeping at the mission and to be very helpful and fearless during the murder investigation. I also admired her for her willingness to do hands-on work at the mission, something that women of her station rarely did. She also had a mischievous and manipulative streak in her, but she only used it for the greater good, never on David. I love how she schemed to get a huge donation for the mission out of one of the more distasteful characters. She also had a wonderful intuition about many thing, but especially about David, regularly sensing his needs and emotions. I also loved how these two characters exhibited a great deal of trust and honesty with each other, and were never pushy or needy.
Some of the best and most intriguing characters came in the form of the supporting cast. In A Woman of Virtue, Ms. Carlyle has continued her intricate web of characters from previous and future books. I just can't seem to help but love Bentley Rutledge who was first seen in Beauty Like the Night. He projects the aura of an inveterate blackguard, but is really a character who is full of intriguing complexities which this book continued to build on. I don't think I've read such a wonderfully rendered secondary character as Bentley. He simply steals nearly every scene he is in, leaving the reader longing for more. Bentley appears again in No True Gentleman and finally gets his own story in The Devil You Know, which I am greatly looking forward to reading. Also visiting, as David's temporary employee, was George Kemble, the enigmatic, multi-talented valet who was first seen in My False Heart. In A Woman of Virtue, readers discover a few more of Kem's talents, leaving one wondering if perhaps he might be more that what he seems. Kem currently appears in four other novels: No True Gentleman, The Devil You Know, A Deal with the Devil, and The Devil to Pay.
Other characters who put in an appearance were Cole and Jonet Amherst, the hero and heroine of A Woman Scorned, giving readers a look at where they are a few years later. While I have not yet read A Woman Scorned, I am fairly certain that David made his first appearance in that book as well. A Woman of Virtue also introduces readers to Maximilian de Rohan, the police inspector who becomes the hero of No True Gentleman, and Giles Lorimer, Cecilia's stepson, who becomes the hero of A Deal with the Devil. There are also brief introductions to the more minor characters of Harry Markham-Sands and Isabel, Lady Kirton, who also have roles in No True Gentleman, as do Cecilia and David. Even though A Woman of Virtue was not quite as good as some of Ms. Carlyle's other books for me, the entire cast of characters and a fun, passionate story made it a very enjoyable read. I have read enough of Ms. Carlyle's books now that I can certainly say she has earned a place on my favorite authors list, and I would read any of her works in the future.
Note: Ms. Carlyle's didn't used to officially consider her books as series, but recently she began grouping them together on her website. A Woman of Virtue is now listed as book #3 in the Lorimer Family & Clan Cameron series. However, I would advise readers that Ms. Carlyle's character web is very complex, with past and future characters popping up throughout all of her books. With this in mind, it is my opinion that the reading experience would be greatly enhanced by beginning with Ms. Carlyle's first book, My False Heart, and continuing to read them in their publication order. The entire backlist, in order, can be found on her website.
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