Isabella Fleur Bradshaw is running for her and life has no money. In a desperate attempt to avoid starvation, she decides to sell the only thing of value she has left, her body. Standing in the shadows of the Drury Lane Theater, Fleur is spotted by a scarred man who hires her for the evening. Their cold encounter leaves her frightened and repulsed, but afterward, the man shows her some surprising kindness. Fleur never could have guessed that her actions would set into motion an unexpected series of events that would completely alter her future.
When he saw the girl outside the theater, Adam Kent wanted nothing more than to ease his deep loneliness in the arms of a woman, but she did not respond in the way he expected. After realizing that he had corrupted an innocent, Adam feels nothing but disgust at himself. He cannot stop thinking of the young woman he knows only as Fleur, and sets about trying to find her. After several days, Adam's secretary finally locates Fleur and as instructed, hires her to be a governess to Adam's young daughter. Fleur is grateful that she won't have to prostitute herself again, but when she discovers that her new employer is none other than her first client, she is wary and frightened of his intentions. All Adam wants to do is make up for a little of the pain he has caused her, but it would take a small miracle to get her to see him as anything other than the monster he feels he is. Even as he makes some headway, and they begin to fall in love, the complicated circumstances of both their lives may prove to be an insurmountable obstacle to a forever relationship.
The Secret Pearl is far more than a mere romance novel. It is an exquisite love story of two people who fall in love against seemingly impossible odds, and whose love for one another never fades despite being kept apart by circumstances beyond their control. All this occurs amidst the hero and heroine's inauspicious, even sordid, initial meeting where he becomes her first client as a prostitute, and the discovery that he is married to another woman. I believe Mary Balogh took a huge risk in creating a hero who was cheating, but in my opinion, she pulled it off splendidly. Even though I'm not one to condone infidelity, I was never off-put by this part of the story, because she gave the characters so much depth, I couldn't help but sympathize. My emotions were stirred right from the opening scene by two characters who are broken in spirit and desperately in need of love.
Fleur is an incredibly strong, courageous woman who responds to every challenge in her life with quiet dignity. She may be quaking inwardly, but only rarely does she allow it show on the outside. In doing so, she has learned to hide her true emotions behind an inscrutable mask, yet somehow, Adam still manages to see past it to find the hurting, frightened woman underneath. I thought the author did an amazing job of expressing Fleur's agonized decision to prostitute herself, and the abject desperation that led her to that choice. Life has taught her that she can depend on no one but herself, and makes her distrustful of nearly everyone, including Adam, even when he's being kind and trying very hard to win back the trust he damaged during their first meeting. It was very difficult to read how afraid Fleur was of Adam, and even more so to have her still wary and questioning his motives after he did so much for her and she had allowed him to get close to her on a few occasions. However, I think she was more afraid of the feelings he stirred in her than she was of the man himself. I also felt that deep down she already knew the answers to the questions she asked, but was guarding her heart against the knowledge that a real relationship between them was impossible due to his marital status. In addition to her strength, I admired Fleur for her indelible patience with Adam's daughter, Pamela, even when she was being bratty, and how she was able to win the little girl over with her unconditional love. I also thoroughly enjoyed the author's beautiful expressions of Fleur's love of music and how she becomes one with it. I'm not sure that I would have what it takes to make some of the choices Fleur did (there were several times I probably would have caved), but I respected her for not choosing the easy path and facing everything life threw at her with her head held high.
Adam is a tantalizingly complex character. He begins the story with a definite air of anger and self-loathing. Even though he used Fleur and in the process was unfaithful to his wife, I can still say with all honesty that he was a very decent, kind, gentle, loving, patient and honorable man. He felt so remorseful over his actions that he spent the entire rest of the story atoning for his one mistake. Adam is a deeply lonely man with terrible physical scars from his time in the war. Through circumstances that were no fault of his own, he had been placed in an untenable position. Although he did everything he could to keep his wife happy and never showed her anything but kindness, he sadly received nothing in return from her except scorn. Adam is a wonderful father to Pamela, and I greatly respected him for maintaining his place of authority in his own household even though his wife tried her hardest to usurp that role and guilt him into letting her have her own way. Adam is a quiet, intellectual man who prefers small gatherings to the huge social events his wife always throws. Aside from his protectiveness and occasional grousing at his valet, Adam leans much more toward being a beta hero. He is a refreshingly intelligent and perceptive man. He is fully understanding of why Fleur is wary of him, and actually sees and appreciates her in a very profound way. Adam is also highly self-sacrificing, allowing his wife to think him the villain when he married her in order to spare her feelings and was also willing to give up his own happiness for the sake of loyalty, honor and responsibility. I thoroughly admired his self-control. Even when he was angry, he didn't shout or rail at everyone, and when it came to his desires, (aside from his one indiscretion) he always behaved very admirably and was a perfect gentleman. Adam was very careful not to say, "I love you," to Fleur for a long time, but he expressed his unquestionable love for her by uttering other equally beautiful, romantic lines and especially through his gallant actions. All in all, Adam was a superb romance hero I'll not soon forget.
After their dispassionate first encounter and all they had to overcome, I couldn't imagine how Mary Balogh was going to create an HEA for this couple. Fleur does warm up to Adam through an almost painfully slow process in which they seem to take two steps forward and one step back, but I wouldn't have traded a minute of it for anything. I love how Ms. Balogh took the time and care to build a relationship that was real, genuine, lasting, and most importantly, not merely based on lust. Adam had to rebuild Fleur's trust and fan the flames of love in very small degrees through his kind, gentle gestures that were always meaningful to Fleur in some way. It took a while to get there, but their first kiss was filled with tenderness and passion, making it so worth the wait. All along the way, Ms. Balogh was masterful at turning simple things like a look, a touch or simply being in each other's presence into a sensuous experience. I was particularly fond of the intertwining pinky fingers, and them holding hands and leaning into each other during a long carriage ride. Their first time making love was beautiful but also very bittersweet, knowing what was coming the next day. When it happened I couldn't help crying, but Adam's pledge to Fleur made me sigh from the sheer perfection of it. Theirs was by far one of the most hauntingly beautiful love stories I've ever read.
Even the secondary characters are portrayed with a great deal of depth. Adam's wife, Sybil, acts like a spoiled princess. She has come to think of Adam as a tyrant and doesn't even try to hide her hatred of him. She all but flaunts her own lovers right under his nose, but becomes petulant when she thinks he has taken Fleur as his mistress. There was a part of me that wanted to hate Sybil for how shabbily she treated Adam, but at the same time, I couldn't help feeling sorry for her. She too had been something of a victim of circumstances and her heart had been badly broken. She could have chosen to try to be happy, but sadly, had deluded herself into living in a skewed version of reality. Their daughter, Pamela, was a bright child who could be a little bratty in the beginning, but it was clear that she was just in need of some healthy attention. She slowly came around through the patience and love shown her by Adam and Fleur. Adam's half-brother, Thomas, the love of Sybil's life, was a pretty shallow man. It's hard to believe that he and Adam were, at least partially, cut from the same cloth. Fleur's cousin, Matthew, also lives in is own flawed reality, leading him to do some pretty terrible things. He caused no end of grief for poor Fleur, yet without his nasty schemes, she never would have met Adam.
The Secret Pearl is a complex, multi-layered story of love, lies, and deception. I love how Mary Balogh doesn't take the easy road, but instead takes the time to build a romance that is believable and deeply meaningful because of all the hero and heroine had to go through to find that happy ending. This is only my second book by her, but they've been a joy to read, not only for the intricate themes and masterful character development, but also for her lyrical prose. With her exquisitely beautiful writing style, Ms. Balogh is fast on her way to becoming a favorite author. I greatly look forward to continuing to explore her other books, but for now this unique little gem has earned a permanent spot on my keeper shelf to be enjoyed again and again in the years to come. After reading such a remarkable story, it's going to be difficult to move on to another book.
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