Emily Fairfax is the daughter of a general, who followed her father, three brothers, and new husband to the Continent as they waged war against Napoleon. As such, she's no shrinking violet, but now she's back at home, a widow, nursing her only surviving brother whose injuries confine him to a wheelchair. When an enigmatic friend of her father's comes to visit one evening, she suspects there's something more to him than meets the eye. He infuriates her with his rude insults, but at the same time, his dark good looks, intense eyes, and a limp he tries to mask intrigue her. When Emily discovers that the stranger was an old friend of her brother, Dev's as well, and Dev tells her something of the Duke's tragic past, she decides to pay him a visit, during which he bests her once again but also gives rise to a desire she thought never to experience.
Dominic Maitland, the Duke of Avon, was born with a twisted leg. He was despised for his disability by a callous father, who showed him no mercy. Determined to make his father proud, even though the man is long-dead, Dominic used his sharp mind to become the leader of a ring of spies who've been instrumental in the war against Napoleon. Now there is a traitor in their midst who intends to see Dominic dead. When the Duke is beaten senseless in an alleyway, Emily's father secretly takes him in while he recuperates. During that time, Emily tempts the man who has vowed never to marry into one night of unforgettable passion. But unexpected consequences, a spy determined to kill him, and the Duke's own dark, haunted past may destroy their budding love before it has a chance to grow into something lasting.
It's been years since I've read one of Gayle Wilson's books, so long, in fact, that I can barely remember anything about them, except that I generally enjoyed them. So I went into reading The Heart's Desire wanting to reintroduce myself to the author. I still mostly enjoyed this book, but I found that the author has some quirks to her writing style about which I had mixed feelings. The story takes place over approximately a year's time, and to keep the plot going, the author introduces a conflict, then resolves it, introduces another, then resolves or partially resolves it, etc. I admit that it kept me reading, but at the same time it could be a little frustrating to believe that the hero and heroine had finally gotten past something only to have another thing rear it's ugly head, and underneath it all was their own stubbornness and pride borne out of their insecurities fueling a lot of the conflict. Also, the author engages in head-hopping narration, which I think was a more accepted story-telling style back when this book was first published in 1994, but which I personally find a bit harder to follow. I was no sooner settled into one character's POV, when the next paragraph suddenly switches to another, sometimes even supporting characters. I eventually, more or less, got used to it, but I did find myself having to focus more intently to keep track of who was thinking what and exactly what was happening. So while the book was still pretty good, it did have it's issues.
In much the same way that I had mixed feelings about the writing style, I also had mixed feelings about Dominic, the hero. He has a strong reputation as a cold-hearted rake, which does play itself out in several ways throughout the story. In his first couple of interactions with Emily, he basically verbally insults her and then more or less pushes himself on her physically, which to me, came off as more creepy than sexy, even though she was digging it. We eventually come to understand that he's trying to scare her away, but only kind of. He's deeply attracted to her but has vowed never to marry, so his actions have that sort of I-want-you-but-I-don't-want-you vibe. In this way, he's pretty much one of those old-school bodice-ripper type alpha heroes who isn't particularly in touch with his feelings and who usually isn't really my cup of tea. However, although I felt like it took a little too long to get there, we eventually learn that Dominic has a very sympathetic past. He was born with a twisted leg and his imperfection disgusted his cold-hearted father, who basically abused him for having a disability he couldn't help. Then his mother and older brothers died in an accident, leaving Dominic the heir-apparent to the Dukedom, which only further alienated his father, who couldn't stand the thought of a cripple inheriting the title. As a result, Dominic became determined to prove himself worthy of the title and his father's love, which he never had. Since he couldn't go fight in the Napoleonic War himself, he cultivated his mental acuity and became the leader of a network of spies who helped immensely in winning the war. He also often goes out risking his own neck to investigate and pass along information, especially now that there's a traitor in their midst that he's determined to find. He basically pushes himself beyond the limits of his endurance, all because of his father's derision, even though the man is now long-dead. Dominic has also resolved not to marry or have children for fear of passing his disability on, so when Emily comes into the picture, tempting him to break that vow, he's far from the cuddliest of heroes. I did however, appreciate his ability to make Emily's brother, Devon, feel useful again, and he does gradually soften somewhat as the story progresses.
Emily's father and brothers were all in the military and heading off to fight in the war, and she had no intention of being left behind. She married a peer who was also contributing to the war effort, not because she loved him, but because he was her ticket to the continent to be with her beloved family. She became one of the wives who followed the soldiers around, but ended up losing her husband and two of her brothers. The third brother is now disabled from shrapnel that's lodged near his spine, which all the doctors, so far, say is impossible to remove without severing the spinal cord and killing him. Both on the continent and now back at home, Emily is devoted to caring for Devon, almost to the point of keeping him from reaching his full potential, which Dominic helps her to see. When she meets Dominic, he awakens her in ways she never thought possible, making her throw caution to the wind by trying to seduce him, even if it's only for that one night. But she soon realizes that one night isn't enough. Throughout their turbulent relationship, Emily can be nearly as stubborn and self-sabotaging as Dominic. A part of me admired her strength and independence, but another part of me felt like she could have been a little more emotionally open.
As for Dominic and Emily's relationship, it took a little while for me to start feeling that all-important emotional connection. For the first half or so of the book, he spends most of it holding himself at arms length, thinking he can't allow himself to feel anything for her. For Emily's part, she's trying to control her feelings for him, believing that he doesn't want anything to do with her. Essentially we're told more so than shown that they've fallen in love with one another, but I just didn't really feel it until after he makes his confession to her about why he doesn't want to get involved with her. Overall, I didn't feel like they communicated very well throughout most of the story either. They both - but especially Dominic - have a tendency to play things close to the vest, and then each of them misconstrues the other's words or actions to mean something they don't. They also both have a tendency to let their stubborn pride get in the way. As I said before, their relationship is rather turbulent, when I felt like it didn't have to be that way. More open communication would have cleared up a lot of it. I grudgingly admit that it did propel the story forward via the various internal conflicts that arise, but as a reader it could be rather frustrating.
There are some strong secondary characters in The Heart's Desire, including Emily's father and brother. Devon plays one of the more prominent roles, and I really like him. He's trying to make the best of a bad situation and learn to live with his disability, while helping Dominic pore over reams of documents, searching for the traitor. He'll become the hero of The Heart's Wager, the next book of The Hearts Trilogy. Then there are Dominic's servants, particularly his valet, Moss, with whom he shares more than a mere master/servant bond. They're more like friends or even family, with Moss frequently speaking his mind to both Dominic and Emily in a way that most servants wouldn't and playing a role in finally getting them to see reason. Since Dominic tells Devon that Moss needs a change of scenery and could be instrumental in helping him recover from his injuries, it seems that Moss may be a key player in the next book as well.
Overall, The Heart's Desire was a pretty good read, despite it being a little old-school for my taste. The characters were well-developed. Even if they could be a tad irritating at times, I was generally willing to give them a pass, because most of the time I understood why they were behaving that way. The romance itself may have been a little more subdued and not the wildly passionate and emotional ride I prefer, but I, at least, turned the last page feeling like Dominic and Emily had finally passed all the major hurdles to finding happiness, had come to a fuller understanding of each other, and were on their way to a more peaceful marriage. So at the end of any book, that's all this romance reader really wants. Not to mention Devon really caught my eye, so I'll be looking forward to reading his book at some point in the hopefully near future.
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