Damn. Like Alice, I jumped down a rabbit hole feet first, saw the bottle labeled "Drink Me", quaffed it down like a sailor too long deprived of shore leave and rum and was off on yet another Mary Balogh adventure. In this case, the bottle was the glorious Indiscreet, and, like Alice, I found it a very tasty concoction indeed. But I've learned one distressing thing about reading a Balogh book. Once I delve into the Balogh stack, it's never just once. I'm pretty sure another one or two (possibly four or five) Balogh books will ensue after Indiscreet. Damn. And, I had made such progress on reducing Mt. TBR to a more manageable little mole hill.
If you haven't read Indiscreet, you really should. Really. Indiscreet needs to be read to fully appreciate such a wonderfully strong, well rounded heroine who has wrongly suffered censure, scorn and isolation not only from ton society but from those closest to her, her family. A heroine who finds redemption when she stops letting 'life happen' to her and becomes fully engaged instead of passively accepting. It needs to be read as one of the most finely crafted romances in which a rakish, arrogant, selfish hero's redemption comes about not only by the heroine inadvertently holding a mirror up to his lack of consideration and respect for her but also by his own much needed self-reflection and self-examination. Read it to see how charming and claustrophobic the village of Boden-on-the-Water is, a comforting familiar sense of community where the up side is everybody knows your name and the down side is well, everybody knows not only your name but all about your business. And what they don't know, they speculate on or make up to suit a need to titillate, to judge, to censure, to be entertained. Read it for its excellent cast of secondary characters, some of whom are a nod to a few Jane Austen characters. Read it for a most excellent deployment of CHIN utilized by a romance heroine. (Thank you, "Miss Bates Reads Romance", for I will never read about an uplifted heroine's chin in the same way again.) Just read it.
Indiscreet begins with a premise of mistaken identity and flawed assumptions. Mrs. Catherine Winters, a widowed music teacher in the small village of Boden-on-the-Water, mistakes Rex Adams, Viscount Rawleigh, for his amiable twin brother, Claude, as he rides through the village. She smiles and curtsies. Viscount Rawleigh, in turn, mistakenly assumes the smile of the beautiful widow to be an invitation to end his boredom and escape his sister-in-law's determined matchmaking while visiting his brother for a few weeks. He doesn't wait long to make Catherine an indecent proposal, and she doesn't think twice about refusing it.
"You would pay me,” she said, “for lying with you? For going to bed with you? For allowing you access to my body?”
He could not have put it much more erotically himself.
“Yes, ma’am,” he said. “I would pay you. Though I would consider it as much my concern to give you pleasure as yours to give it to me.”
“Get out,” she said so quietly that it took him a moment to realize what she had said. He raised his eyebrows.
“Get out,” she said much more distinctly, the flush returning to her face, her nostrils flaring. “Get out and never come back.”
“You have led me to this moment,” he said, “only to tell me to get out? Have I misread the signs? There have been too many for me to be mistaken.” She was on her feet.
“Get out.” He took his time about getting up. He looked closely at her. She meant what she was saying. There was no chance that she was playing hard to get. He had misread the signs. Or if he had not, he had misinterpreted them. She was a virtuous woman—why else would she have taken up residence in such a village? And she was a proud woman—he should never have admitted that he was prepared to pay her. She was attracted to him. Of that there was little doubt. But she had wanted a mild flirtation—something that did not interest him.
But perhaps if he had not rushed into a false interpretation, he might have led her by slow degrees from flirtation to dalliance to an affair. That might have taken weeks, though.
Now it was too late to find out how it might have turned out the other way.
“No,” he said as she opened her mouth to speak again, “you do not need to repeat it.” He got to his feet. “My heartfelt apologies, ma’am. Your servant.” He made her a curt bow before striding out into the passageway, picking up his hat, and letting himself out into the night. (45)
Rex is still working under a miscalculation, believing Catherine refused because she wanted a 'mild flirtation' when she is really infuriated that her hard-won respect, peace and contentment has been dismissed as if it were nothing, that in his overbearing arrogance to have what he wants when he wants it, for however long he wants and to hell with the consequences to her, he has failed to see her as a person in her own right. She has travelled this road before, after all.
She was not going to avoid him. Or hang her head if she saw him again. Or blush or stammer or otherwise give him the satisfaction of knowing that he had discomposed her.
She was still angry—very angry—that the female state made one so weak, gave one such little freedom. She was angry that the world of men had so little use in it for women except in one capacity. She was angry that it was a man’s world she lived in. For a few moments, until Toby came trotting back into the house and she closed the door, she felt the old raw and empty feeling of helplessness. But she was not going to feed such negative emotions.
She had fought too hard for her peace to have it shattered by a heartless, arrogant rake who believed that because she had smiled at him twice she would smile a third time as he climbed into her bed to take his pleasure of her. (51)
And this leads to one of the best deployments of a chin raise by a heroine I believe I've ever read. Catherine plays around with not going to Bodley House the next morning to give Claude and Clarissa's children their music lessons, but Catherine refuses to be intimidated, diminished. She knows she is in the right. She gave him no encouragement to make that proposal save a smile that was intended for his brother.
But Rex is feeling the sting of humiliation and chalks up her refusal of his advances more as the manipulations of a 'tease.'
His prim, straitlaced widow who was in reality a tease and a hypocrite. He could not remember a time when he had so miscalculated with a woman. He did not feel very kindly disposed toward her. (56)
Their next meeting, in the music room at Bodley House, is tense and she as good as shames Rex with the merest lift of her chin.
She did not look away again as he expected her to do. Neither did she blush. She kept her eyes steady on his and her chin came up perhaps half an inch. He almost disgraced himself by allowing his eyes to waver from hers, but he pursed his lips instead and forced himself to look at her with deliberate nonchalance. She was made of stern stuff, it appeared. And he had to confess that she was refreshing after half a morning in Ellen Hudson’s company. (57) (my emphasis)
That he felt himself wanting to look away from her direct gaze is as revelatory about Rex as it is about Catherine though he still doesn't comprehend that 'No' actually meant just that and wasn't a devious ploy to whet his appetite. It does indicate there is a conscience in there somewhere, rusty though it may be. For now, Catherine is still a thing to be won, a challenge to his appeal to the opposite sex. She is not a person with the capacity and intelligence to make choices, to make decisions, to take action, or not, as the case may be. Catherine's self-determination has been dismissed as if it were a merely bothersome fly at a picnic.
He was left alone with Catherine Winters, who was standing straight-backed and square-chinned close to the pianoforte, glaring at him.
Now, why the devil had he done that? Why had he not seized the chance to escape when it had presented itself on a golden platter? She was challenging him. That was what she was doing.
She was not behaving with the distressed modesty he would have expected from a virtuous woman who had been presented with a very improper proposal in her own home just the evening before. He clasped his hands behind him and strolled toward her. (61)
He is relentless in his pursuit of Catherine despite her clear, repeated refusals of any relationship that might cost her her everything she holds dear in Boden-on-the-Water and despite her acknowledgement of growing attraction to Rex. It culminates in a final blistering showdown which sets the scene for Rex's restitution and redemption.
"I will not be your mistress,” she said.
“Why not?” His head moved an inch closer to hers. “Why ever not? Do you believe I will mistreat you? I am accustomed to giving as much pleasure as I receive.”
Even then a treacherous desire stabbed through her.
"I will not,” she said. “And I do not have to give a reason. I will not. I have told you so before. I tried to avoid you tonight by retiring to the music room. I tried to stop you from bringing me home. I tried to stop you from coming beyond the postern door with me. I have been very clear in my denials.”
“As your body has been very clear in its invitations,” he said. He was definitely angry now. “You want marriage, is that it, Catherine? You set your favors at the highest price of all. Well, I will pay it. Marry me.”
She was shocked into silence for a few moments. “You would marry me,” she said, “in order to go to bed with me?”
“Precisely,” he said. “If there is no other way. I want you that much. Are you satisfied?”
“Yes, I am satisfied,” she said, cold suddenly and as far from feeling desire as she had ever felt. She brushed his arms aside when they reached for her. “I am satisfied that my reason and my common sense have been advising me well for the past two weeks. I am not just a female body, my lord. This is not an empty shell. There is a person inside. A person who dislikes you and resents your arrogant assumption that a few kisses and caresses are sufficient to establish your right to make use of my body for your pleasure. You have done nothing but pursue me since I first mistook you for your brother and smiled at you. Even though I said no quite clearly when you first called on me, you would not believe that any woman could be insane enough to resist you. Well, this woman prefers insanity to becoming your possession.”
“Why, you bitch,” he said quietly and almost pleasantly. “I do believe you are enjoying yourself. I will give you no further opportunity. You will be plagued with me no longer after tonight, ma’am. I am sure we will be mutually delighted not to set eyes on each other again.” (154-155)
The first half of Indiscreet is more Catherine's story, I believe. It's her backstory of being raped, facing a pregnancy alone and spurned not just by society but abandoned by her family, the steps she took to reclaim her life and deal with all her losses. But her contentment is shattered because, of course, Rex was seen leaving Catherine's darkened cottage which sets all the tongues in the village wagging. The consequences are devastating - ostracism by the villagers, eviction from the cottage by Clarissa Adams, and a visit from the Reverend Lovering.
“I will not cross this threshold,” he said with quiet solemnity. “It is my duty to inform you, Mrs. Winters, that fornicators and sinners are not welcome to worship with the righteous in the church of which I have been accorded the honor of being pastor. I deeply regret having to make this visit. But I never shirk what I consider my duty.”
She found herself smiling. “No fornicators or sinners,” she said. “Who is left
to attend church, then, sir?”
He regarded her sternly. “Levity is not appropriate to the gravity of the circumstances, ma’am,” he said.
“So you believe the story too?” she said. “You are here to cast your stone along with everyone else?”
“Ma’am,” he said, his expression unchanged, “I believe the evidence of my own eyes. I saw his lordship leaving here last night. One cannot blame him, of course. Any man who is caught in the snare of a Jezebel is to be pitied rather than censured. His lordship has seen the error of his ways and has left Bodley House.”
“Good day, Reverend,” she said (177)
The second half, then, is weighed heavily for Rex's redemption and what he does to make amends to Catherine. It doesn't start out that way, because he pretty much forces Catherine into marriage with him without knowing her secrets, without even asking why Catherine Winters is really Lady Catherine Winsmore. When all is revealed, when he learns exactly how she has been victimized by the villain, Rex begins to see his earlier pursuit of her differently, drawing parallels with his reprehensible behavior and the man who raped Catherine five years ago. Everything he does afterward - reuniting her with her brother and father, restoring her good name and reputation in society, and revenge on the man who ravished her - is done because he comes to know her and love her. Rex's transformation from the selfish, arrogant, rake to a perceptive, protective, loving man was one of the things I enjoyed most in Indiscreet.
I loved the character of Miss Agatha Downes, the spinster daughter of the former rector of Boden-on-the-Water, who definitely calls to mind Miss Hetty Bates of Emma and who is respectable and admirable without being intimidated by the village society or bitter about her circumstances. That she is the one to offer solace and friendship to Catherine when everyone turns their back also echoes the kindred generosity of spirit found in Miss Bates. Instead of vitriolic name-calling and judgmental attacks, Miss Downes cuts up currant cake into bite-sized pieces, brews hot tea, and offers Catherine steadfast support and friendship, compassion and understanding.
“I do not know the truth of the matter,” Miss Downes said. “I do not want to know and do not need to know. It is none of my business. But the truth of my religion is my business. Papa always taught me that it was my personal business, that I should not let even a minister of religion, even Papa himself, speak for me when what he has to say is against the truth as I know it. The truth as I know it, the truth as Mother and Papa always taught it, is that the church is for sinners. Not for anyone else. Just for sinners. Being a sinner is one’s membership certificate in the church—that was Papa’s little joke. I am a member of the church, Mrs. Winters. I let that fact speak for itself.”
"Mrs. Winters is a lady, we said to each other. But you did not need to say it, dear. I did not need to know. I did not come to pry. I merely thought—and Mother thought—that you might like a little chat and a nice cup of tea. Oh, goodness me, it looks as if you have been baking for an army.” Her eyes had alighted on the table and all the cakes that were to have been delivered to the elderly.(182-183)
And if Miss Downes echoes Miss Bates, how could I not see a connection between the obsequious, dully deferential Reverend Lovering and fawning and morally upright Mr. Collins of Pride & Prejudice? Without a doubt, Clarissa Adams, Rex's sister-in-law, playing Lady Bountiful to all the peasants certainly was cast in the same mold as the overbearing, domineering Lady Catherine de Bourgh. As Lady Catherine's visit to Elizabeth advising her that she was 'polluting' Pemberley if she dared to marry Mr. Darcy served to unite Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth, so, too, did Clarissa's eviction of Catherine from the cottage unwittingly serve as the catalyst to bring Catherine and Rex together. The repercussions of Clarissa's actions and the effect on her marriage to Claude were longstanding and devastating.
Read Indiscreet for the chin, for the Austen allusions, for any and all these reasons. Read it for the pleasure of enjoying a depth of characterization it's very hard to find these days, a multi-layered story, and a romance based on mutual attraction and respect and without one shred of insta-lust. Read it for what is says about choice, consent, self-determination, comfort, friendship, pride, and living life actively instead of passively. Read it for one of the best declarations of love from a heroine to a hero I've run across in a while. Indiscreet is without a doubt deserving of all the stars.