1. The Seducer (**)
2. The Saint (*)
3. The Charmer (****)
4. The Sinner (SKIP)
5. The Romantic (****)
Madeline Hunter's dark, strong and silent heroes continue to enthrall in the final installment in this series on the Dueling Society. Unlike THE CHARMER (which belonged to its heroine), this novel thoroughly belongs to its tall, dark, handsome and silent hero who is a romantic at heart: Julian Hampton. A solicitor by profession and lacking the title and wealth of other romance heroes, Julian Hampton's pithy and succinct eloquence shields a poetic, romantic heart that yearns for the woman he's loved since he was a youth. From the amusing letters he's conjuring to write to the happily-married ladies who thrust eligible ladies at him, Julian exudes a sly sense of humor. The eligible ladies fail to excite him however because for all of his teenage and adult life, Julian Hampton's heart surreptitiously aches for Penelope, the notorious Countess of Glasbury and Viscount Leclere's sister (from THE SAINT). THE SEDUCER and THE SAINT builds the foundation for Julian and Penelope's story here in THE ROMANTIC. Although THE CHARMER features the best historical backdrop, THE ROMANTIC contains the strongest plotting and pacing of the series, engaging me and surprising me even as I predicted other elements. There's suspense, adventure, murder, a trial, whodunit mystery, and of course, romance and passion. I was thankful that even though Julian yearns for Penelope his whole life, the book avoids the copious pining and repetitive introspection which would take away from his character. One thing you have to love about Madeline Hunter's characters and stories: her stories offer more historical backdrop and plotting than the average romance book while her characters are doing something beyond seeking and having sex. Here, Penelope is very proud of authoring a piece on married womens' rights.
THE ROMANTIC is probably the darkest book in the series as well. Penelope isn't a virgin and she's married: separated from her husband, the earl of Glasbury, who engages in sordid sexual activity including BDSM. Penelope's notorious reputation, Julian's angst over Pen's affairs following her separation with the earl, Pen and Julian's advanced age (both are 'old' for romance stories) and the reprobate earl's insidious designs all make for a dark read. I found some of the early, seductive interaction between Julian and Penelope a bit jarring. I think the book tried to build chemistry by making Pen feel for Julian early but it didn't seem to fit. For instance, after returning from Naples and faced with the terror of returning to the depraved earl, Julian comforts Pen in his strong but silent manner with a hand-to-hand touch or a squeeze on her shoulder. These subtle touches sends shivers of anticipation through Pen, and it didn't fit after all these years. This is the first time she's noticing Julian in such a manner? Why, all of a sudden now, I mean she's known Julian her whole life, right? Sleeping next to Julian's room and taking a bath in Julian's cottage all seem to force the sensuality between the two too early as Pen enjoys the delicious seduction. Still, I enjoyed Julian's angry reaction to Pen's list of potential conspirators in a public affair to force the earl to divorce her. She leaves out Julian as a potential candidate, and he's furious.
Another thing you have to love about Madeline Hunter's stories: both the hero and heroine end up giving to each other in love. The giving and loving is mutual. As much as Julian protects and loves Pen his whole life, Pen helps him and takes care of him at the end. You could tell she's really awed by the depth of his love and loves him in kind. She did seem too ignorant of the depth of his love though, always making excuses for his loyal protection and love earlier. When she still couldn't surmise the recipient of Julian's unsent love letters during the trial at the end, her ignorance started to grate. However, Pen's ignorance added to the drama and tension in the plotting. I would have hoped the book made Pen's ignorance of Julian's profound love deliberate on her part. Like she knew subconsciously the depths of Julian's love for her but couldn't face it because she felt she was unworthy or she was afraid to believe in it. Alas, there's no such admission, she simply says she had no idea and that she's honored by Julian's lifelong love for her. Despite her persistent ignorance, I did feel Pen deserved Julian. It's clear Pen is very compassionate always abandoning her interests for the sake of others'. Pen says she married Anthony because he was an earl and she was young and stupid but that wasn't the complete picture. I couldn't abide Pen marrying the earl in the first place, but then we learn financial straits handicapped Pen's family during her first season. The earl of Glasbury's generous offer compelled Pen to accept and she later convinced herself that it was her fault. Then after separation, she avoided outright confrontation with the earl because she wants to shelter her family from scandal as much as possible. Yes, I think Pen is very deserving of Julian's undying love and devotion. I could understand Julian's love for Pen since they grew up together and Julian witnessed first-hand Pen's compassion serving as her family's solicitor.
The Story, possible SPOILERS.
After a comfortable separation between the earl and countess of Glasbury lasting many years, the earl desires to sire an heir off the countess, Penelope. The reasons which previously checked the cruel earl's hand no longer matter seem to matter to him, and he demands his conjugal rights as a husband and master of his wife. The earl is, after all, well into his 40s while the countess Penelope well into her 30s. The earl harbors a cruel streak in sex as he enjoys inflicting pain and subordinating his sexual partners. A virginal Penelope didn't know any better at the beginning of her marriage, and finally flees after witnessing the earl's horrible treatment of another child. She divulges the worst to her friend and solicitor Julian Hampton. We know from THE SEDUCER that Hampton secured a permanent separation for Penelope by threatening to reveal the worst of the earl's twisted pleasures. Now, years later, the earl wants her back to sire an heir and no revelations of his sordid depravities will check him. English law bestows all the rights in marriage to the husband, especially an aristocrat, and Penelope has no choice but to run for her life.
Penelope runs straight to Julian Hampton like she did before and Julian promises to protect her from the earl. They retreat to Julian's rustic cottage but eventually the earl discovers Penelope's whereabouts. They again flee, this time to meet the one witness who could convince society that the earl has wronged Penelope. When they find the witness deceased, Penelope feels she has no choice but to flee the country and travel to America. Julian eventually convinces her to face the problem head-on and make a choice for herself instead of trying to protect her friends and family. Both decide to engage in a very public affair of convenience, hoping to incite the earl to file for divorce.
The story grows and evolves with twists and turns, getting stronger the more you read it. Pen's strife to escape the earl meshes with her burgeoning feelings for Julian. In the end, the varying elements of suspense, mystery, love and passion manage to entertain and engage.