Desired by Nicola Cornick contains two stories that are almost too big and too opposite to be contained in this single romantic tale. Either the very big and very important story of political reform and spousal abuse are too weighty to be, not just contained but even semi-resolved in what might otherwise be a typical historical romance, or the romance convention is too frothy to hold this rather serious story. At the same time, I really got caught up in the story, and I wanted to see the hero and heroine have their happy ending, and evil get its just desserts.

Owen Purchase, Viscount Roxbury meets Lady Tess Darent when she lowers herself into his waiting arms. As romantic as this introduction sounds, it couldn’t be less so. Tess is escaping from a raid on Mrs. Tong’s house of ill-repute, wearing the borrowed dress of one of the ladies in residence, and she’s climbing down a makeshift rope of silk sheets.

Tess is the Dowager Lady Darent.  She has no husband, well, no living husband, anyway. She’s buried three. It’s something of a habit, if a rather scandalous one. Her parents are dead. Being found in a brothel would be another scandal to add to a very long list, if it weren’t for the reason for the raid. Tess is escaping from a political meeting. Even worse, Tess is one of the ringleaders of that meeting.  She is the infamous cartoonist known as ‘Jupiter’, and she has some of her drawings in her possession. Leaving via the window is her best bet, even in a bawd’s gown and ill-fitting shoes.

But Roxbury is the government’s man, sent as a special investigator to ferret out the leaders of the Reform movement. He knows they all ran into Mrs. Tong’s. At first, the escaping Tess seems like a woman caught up in something well beyond her capability, except…something doesn’t add up for Owen. For one thing, her shoes don’t fit. And she plays the flibbertigibbet a little too well, as though it’s rehearsed. But after he’s seen her into a carriage and searches the room she escaped from, he finds two things that convince him Tess is more than she seems. The room contains a set of male clothing imbued with Tess’ scent and only Tess’, and a sheaf of Jupiter’s drawings. Owen starts to believe that Tess is part of the Reform movement, but has no way to prove it.

Owen and Tess begin a game of cat and mouse, except there are more cats in this game than either of them are aware of. And the cheese is not the one either of them thought they were pursuing when they began.

Owen may be Viscount Roxbury, but his estates have very little money attached. His aunts have money, but will not provide any unless he marries and gets about the business of securing an heir. While this seems slightly cold-blooded, it makes sense from the aunts’ perspective. Owen is American, he had to be searched for up and down the collateral branches of the family tree. The aunts don’t want that to happen again.

Tess needs another protector, another husband. Not just because her identity as “Jupiter” may come to light, but because her scandalous behavior is being used to threaten her step-daughter’s future. And Tess will not let her step-daughter be abused the way that she was. So Tess needs to find a husband who will marry her in name only, just as the late Lord Darent did. Tess suffers from the mistaken belief that Owen will agree to such a marriage, and Tess is filthy rich.

By the time Owen discovers why Tess wanted a marriage in name only, and Tess discovers that he wants a real marriage, it is too late for either of them to change their minds. They are married, and Owen refuses to give Tess up. She does need his protection. The government is closing in. Tess and her Reformer friends have been betrayed, and not by Owen.

Escape Rating B+:There were parts of this story that I really, really liked. Tess’ involvement with the Reform movement was a very interesting route to take. I wanted to know more about Tess’ involvement and whether a couple of people get properly punished. Maybe in the final book in this series (The Scandalous Women of the Ton, Book 6, Forbidden, Summer 2012) those niggling loose ends will get wrapped up.

Where my suspension of disbelief frayed a little was in Tess’ quick recovery from the abuse she suffered at the hands of her second husband. (If he wasn’t dead, I’d want to kill him again too.) Tess has been afraid of being touched by any man for years after her traumatic experiences, and understandably so. Owen’s patience and understanding should eventually win her over, at least in the world of romance, or we wouldn’t have a story. I just thought it was a little too easy. Your mileage may vary.

The element from Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities near the end was extremely well done. The character who is a totally bad apple from the beginning of this series until almost the very end of his life redeems himself with his death.