Adele Ashworth’s Winter Garden (Jove, 2000) is a favorite among romance readers, and ends up in the top third of the AAR Readers poll every year. It is out of print and I couldn’t find it in non-pirated digital (although in a TGTBTU interview in January of this year, Ashworth said not only is Winter Garden available in e, but that it is being reissued in the near future. Color me confuzzled.) I was attracted to the title, and the cover (A lone fully dressed man standing near a garden. How did that get by the Mandatory Mantitty Committee?) and obtained a rather expensive pre-read volume through Amazon. It was well worth it: Winter Garden is one of the most unusual, romantic, and thought-provoking romances I have ever had the pleasure of reading.
The book, set in Victorian England (1849) begins with Madeleine DuMais, a French spy for the British government, arriving at a cottage in Winter Garden to begin her new assignment. Madeleine’s father was a British naval officer, but she spent her childhood with her French mother, an actress who was selfish, neglectful, and addicted to opium. The resilience, cunning and determination that helped Madeleine survive her abusive childhood — not to mention her renowned beauty and charm — have served her well in her role as spy. When she is called by the British government to sleepy retreat of Winter Garden to help foil an opium smuggling operation, Madeleine knows only that she will pose as a French tutor to a fellow spy, Thomas Blackwood, who is himself posing as a reclusive scholar.
The cottage is quiet when she arrives, so Madeleine goes looking for her partner. She ends up in the back yard:
Then she saw the man. Madeleine came to an abrupt halt and stared open-mouthed. It was a ridiculous reaction on her part, she realized at once. Yet she’d never before, in her very experienced life, seen anyone like him. The graphic sexual thoughts suddenly rolling through her mind actually startled her.
He stood along the far end of the property, probably only ten feet away. His back was to her, legs spread wide in a chopping stance, naked from the hips up as he effortlessly lifted an ax and slammed it into the brush in an attempt to clear the overgrowth. He was huge of stature and beautifully muscled from his bunched shoulders and sculpted arms, through the cords of strength along his back, to his lean, tapered waist that disappeared into tight black pants hugging long, thick, booted legs.
Right away, two unusual characteristics of this heroine — Madeleine’s sexual experience, and her instant and strong attraction to Thomas — are conveyed to the reader. On the other hand, the description of the hero, while vivid, is pretty standard fare.
With another quick glance into her eyes, he took his first few steps toward her, and that’s when Madeleine understood his reluctance all too clearly. His limp was pronounced, shocking her in a measure he probably noticed. Or expected.
At first impression, she concluded it wasn’t a recent, healing injury. Thomas favored his right leg, although both appeared to be afflicted. From the way he moved, she knew it had to be an old wound that had likely left scars.
“Thomas—” He paused in midstride, effectively cutting her off, but he didn’t meet her gaze.
“It’s all right, Madeleine,” he replied in a deep whisper. Then he brushed by her so closely she felt the heat from his body, and she instinctively took a step away.
This first meeting sets up the dynamic in their relationship that carries us through quite a bit of the book: Madeleine wanting Thomas, and Thomas resisting her. Madeleine doesn’t understand why two adults can’t have a little mutually consenting fun, but the reader can sense right away that there is a lot more going on with Thomas than meets the eye. He has an agenda, and it involves Madeleine, but what it is doesn’t become clear until near the end of the book.
Thomas is clearly haunted by whatever caused his severe injuries, and is extremely vulnerable. He seems to want something of Madeleine, something deep and important. Madeleine is pretty much unaware of the turmoil she causes in Thomas, and approaches him in the same forthright, witty and intelligent manner she approaches everything.
Their work on identifying and foiling the opium ring is really just a pretext for the character development, although Ashworth populates Winter Garden with a number of interesting and vivid — but not stereotyped — secondary characters. It was refreshing to read a romance set in a functioning small town, other than London, with its own rules and intertwined personal histories.
But the real draw of this book for me was the relationship, which I relished both because it was unusual, and because it was so passionate and romantic. Here’s Thomas and Madeleine walking outside at night. Of course, they are supposed to be doing reconnaissance, but the real action is in their conversation with each other.
Madeleine is thinking aloud about a passionate kiss they recently shared:
“So, after days of reflection,” she concluded, “I decided that this was strictly because you were so centered in it. Our kiss totally consumed you—not in style or the desire to please, but in its sheer intensity. You put everything into it while restraining yourself from going farther physically, even after I practically begged you to.”
Madeleine dropped her voice to a husky whisper. “I don’t think I’ve ever before witnessed such a singular response in a man.”
He hesitated briefly in his stride, drawing a long, slow breath, and she took advantage of his momentary unsureness.
“And do you know what else I think, Thomas?”
“No, but I’m beginning to fear it.”
She grinned broadly and squeezed his hand. “I think it was the most wondrous of any kiss I’ve experienced in years.”
That comment, uttered in absolute honesty, drew him to a standstill. He turned to face her, gazing down into her eyes, his voice and features heavy with caution.
“If that’s a compliment, then I’m very flattered. But I have my doubts that a woman as sophisticated and lovely as you would consider an awkward kiss from me to be wondrous.”
“You find me lovely, Thomas?” she pressed softly, instantly filled with satisfaction, knowing he’d said this before, but sighting deeper meaning in it now.
Without pause, he whispered, “I find you breathtaking beyond adequate words, Madeleine.”
There are two major surprises in store for readers of this book, which I cannot talk about without spoiling it completely. They caused me to go back immediately to page one and start over. Now, when I reread even their very first meeting, I see it very differently. It’s kind of like watching The Usual Suspects again after you find out who Keyser Sose is.
My one question or quibble with the book involves the second of those surprises, so here is a spoiler warning:
Readers get Thomas’s full backstory — who he was prior to his injury, and what his real relationship to Maddie is — near the end of the book. We find out that he had in fact met her years ago, while he was newly injured, and fell in love with her instantly for her beauty and the respectful and caring way she interacted with him. I can believe that a chance encounter can be completely forgotten by one person, while it reorients and anchors another person’s broken life. It’s incredibly romantic, actually. A kind of “I came across time for you, Sarah” moment.
But Thomas’s revelations forced me to reevaluate both characters in a way that wasn’t totally comfortable for me. As a reader, I have been admiring Madeleine all along for her grit and success in a man’s world. Now I find out that their “mission” is a sham, and that she owes her very career to Thomas.
Also, I have been charmed from the beginning by Thomas’s combination of vulnerability and pride, but now I find out he has been manipulating things all along. He has been in total control, not only of Madeleine, but of the whole spy outfit. They are not equals, he is her superior.
And yet, Madeleine is truly strong (Thomas has a point that without his intervention, she may not have ever been given a chance), and Thomas is deeply vulnerable to Madeleine. So in the end, I decided these revelations served to complicate the characters in believable and interesting ways, and ultimately to deepen my appreciation of this book.
I had read and enjoyed one other title by Ashworth, Duke of
Scandal Sin, and plan to read more. Unfortunately, Ashworth’s website is her Harper Collins author page, which doesn’t even list Winter Garden, so it’s not easy to get a full back list.
I can’t actually tell if Winter Garden is part of a series. Some sites say A Notorious Proposition (2008) is the “second book in the Winter Garden series”, and other sites say that Winter Garden is the sequel to Stolen Charms (1999).
The first of Ashworth’s dukes trilogy, The Duke’s Captive, was recently published.
Here are some other reviews:
The Romance Reader, 5 hearts
The Bookkeeper, positive