Over the past year, I've become a fan of Nicola Cornick and so when I saw that Netgalley.com was offering Mistress by Midnight as an egalley I quickly requested it, bought Whisper of Scandal from B&N, and picked up a paperback copy of One Wicked Sin when I saw it at Target. This first trilogy, called The Scandalous Women of the Ton is about all the usual Victorian historical romance things but they're done well enough that I didn't mind that they're not all that original.
Whisper of Scandal starts off this series with Lady Joanna Ware. Joanna is the society darling widow of a famous explorer who is lauded for his discoveries and has a reputation of a saint. The saint's colleague, Lord Grant, is forced into a situation with Joanna when a provision in her husband's will grants her and Lord Grant custody of his illegitimate daughter, a small child who is living in an orphanage in northern Russia, near the Arctic Circle. Alex (Lord Grant) has many strong (read: negative) opinions about Joanna and her lifestyle but it's not until he gets to know her that he realizes just how unhappy her life really was with her husband. Joanna and Alex are both well-written characters, each as strong and vulnerable as the other, and I liked them both.
One Wicked Sin features Lady Joanna's supposed best friend, Lottie Cummings. Lottie spent most of Whisper of Scandal sleeping with every man who caught her attention and her husband had finally had enough. She has since been divorced and disowned by her family; now she's a prostitute in a brothel. When she is approached by Ethan Ryder, a devastatingly handsome Irish illegitimate son of a duke who is prison for fighting against England for France who wants her to be his mistress and come live in the small village in which he is sequestered, she realizes she can't say no. She also realizes that she won't be able to keep her heart from falling for Ethan. Ethan has other ideas including using Lottie as a diversion for his real passion: dismembering England's prison system. There is some weak political intrigue here but it didn't add anything worthwhile to the plot. Lottie and Ethan are two desperate people who left me a bit cold; their romance was pretty sad and while I was happy for them by the end - which had a rather ridiculous rescue - I didn't like them all that much on the way.
Mistress by Midnight wrapped up this trio with Merryn Fenner, Lady Joanna's younger sister. Merryn is a bluestocking, the English version of a nerd, and leads a double life: when she's not attending lectures and poring through books she works secretly for an inquiry agent to gather evidence against Garrick Northesk, Duke of Farne and Lord Grant's half-brother, for the murder of her and Joanna's brother Stephen in a duel years before. Stephen had been sleeping with Garrick's wife and ended up fatally wounded by gunshot. Merryn has been obsessed with her belief that Garrick shot Stephen in cold blood, not in the alleged duel, and should be brought to justice. Of course, she hadn't counted on her attraction to Garrick, also a childhood crush of hers, and finds it extremely difficult to maintain her hatred the more she is around him. Garrick is keeping a huge secret, one that would shatter Merryn's love for her brother, and he can't bear to be the one responsible for breaking her heart. I liked these two a bit more than Ethan and Lottie, but was disappointed in Merryn. Consumed by her grief for the brother she'd put on a pedestal, she sacrificed everyone else's feelings in the process, including Joanna's. For all her determination, she is quite naive and easily manipulated. If you're going to do your worst to ruin a man you'd better have done your homework and she didn't. Merryn came off as a stubborn child, one who would have cut off her nose to spite her face, and I didn't like her which surprised me; the other glimpses of her in the first book gave me another impression. I did like Garrick, a fairly honorable man put into an awful position. Otherwise, the mystery and drama were pretty good and kept me wondering until the happily ever after ending. Cornick's website (go HERE to see it) has hinted that there will be more in this series next year.