Alethea is the oldest daughter of Thomazine Heron, whose story was told in The Moon in the Water and The Chains of Fate. Her talent for drawing is evident even at the age of eleven and her parents send her to stay with cousins in London where she can train with the famous artist Mary Beale. Once grown Alethea’s only desire is to paint and has no wish to marry and lose her independence – but there are three men determined to have her. Her beauty, wit and charm captures the fancy of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, one of the more infamous and licentious members of Charles II’s court. Also in love with her is Jasper, the country-doctor son of Thomazine’s greatest friend, as well as the dark and brooding Kit who is forever scarred by his childhood and cannot let go of his obsessive and unhealthy desire for Alethea.

Can Alethea maintain her virtue against the onslaught of charm and poetry from the amusing but married Rochester? Or will she face scandal and succumb to her greatest desires? What about the staid, but oh so faithful Jasper who is willing to wait patiently? Will she escape Kit’s unnatural love or will it lead to violence? Will that evil witch Meraud finally get the just desserts she so greatly deserves? Inquiring minds want to know but I am not going to tell you – read it for yourself.

Set amidst the backdrop of 17C England during the reign of Charles II, including a terrifying look at the Great London Fire, I found this an absorbing read that kept me reading well into the wee hours of the night. While it might not appeal to readers looking for an action packed novel, I loved the character developments and family relationships Belle was able to create, as well as a look at this period in England’s history away from the King and his court. Belle has a nice knack for writing children and pets into her stories without them being cloying in their cuteness.

I have to say though, despite all the shenanigans with Rochester and his drinking cohorts, the all time scene stealer was Rochester’s pet monkey. The scene where Alethea’s parsimonious uncle pays a surprise visit during a dinner party and the pet cuts lose at the most inappropriate moment,

“The monkey shrieked rudely back and began, with intense concentration, an obscene ritual of intimate hygiene.”

Her uncle’s reaction? Priceless.

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