*Parts of this RA post first appeared on my Goodreads page.*
I was pleasantly surprised to find this installment in the series. A Gentleman’s Wager was my first foray into stories about polyamory, and I’ve since been fascinated with well-written, nuanced stories of poly relationships. Phantasmagoria is still one of my favorite books of all time, because it really allowed me a space to be incredibly turned on and incredibly invested in these characters relationship, a style of relationship that I had never encountered before. In fact, I love the entire series. So much so, that I have them both in print and e-book. This story is more of a character study of Vaughan and Lucerne. Of course, Bella features. This story, much like life, wouldn’t be the same without her, which is something both Vaughan and Lucerne come to terms with in this entry.
Bella, Vaughan, and Lucerne still have a lot of growing to do, but I was heartened to see Vaughan finally admit, out loud, that he loves Bella. Vaughan has been my favorite character. I’ve been moved by his struggle to express his love for Lucerne, tolerate his and Lucerne’s need for Bella, and walk the ridiculously thin line between being a notorious rakehell but alive and hanging from the gallows for being gay. Since Phantasmagoria, it seems that he’s allowed himself to be softer, recognized those parts of him that were cruel in response to society and not necessarily inherent character traits. He’s insecure and jealous and lashes out because of it, a fact which is very clear in this story.
He loves Lucerne, deeply and desperately so. But it’s only these last two months without him, I think, that have allowed him to see clearly. He was blinded by his obsession with Lucerne, so consumed with pursuing him for eight years, that when he finally got a chance at a relationship with him, he spent the time afraid of losing him. Then, confronted with Bella, and Lucerne’s affection for her, he struggled. He saw her as an obstruction, at first, then as a necessary means to an end. He tolerates her, though enjoys her passion and lust, only because being with Lucerne necessitates being with her. After two years, though, he was not ready to admit that he was falling for Bella, causing all sorts of strife within the relationship, especially after 1789 Christmas, in this story where he admits that he’s afraid (he doesn’t use that word) that Bella is only tolerating his presence and relationship with Lucerne, and if Lucerne marries her, Bella will oust him, at worst, and, at best, only allow ‘supervised’ play time between them. Something that is just not true.
I am more than a little annoyed at Lucerne, but I see where the time away from Bella and Vaughan, especially, has allowed him space to breathe and come to terms with, not only his love for Bella, but his love for Vaughan as well, and how intimately intertwined his feelings for them are. He’s beginning to be more honest with himself. He’s definitely the more bisexual of the two gentlemen, but his clinging to Bella was more a response to society and what he should do as a gentlemen who has ruined the reputation of a lady of good standing than a rejection of everything good he could have with Vaughan, though there is some of that as well. In this story, we learn more of the first incident that led to the action of Phantasmagoria. I feel for Lucerne, truly, but I really need him to step up. I need him, in the last novel, to really commit to advocating for himself. He doesn’t lack confidence in any area but in his dealings with Bella and Vaughan. We see him, in this story, trying to get some of his own back and, ultimately failing because he is still wrestling with the social mores that tell him being gay is unconscionable and marriage is necessary.
There’s some internalized homophobia there as well. It has been clear throughout Lucerne’s development. Lucerne is never quite all in with Vaughan and Bella. Maybe its the fear of death? There’s a moment Vaughan alludes to in this story of the day Lucerne admitted, without faltering, that he had feelings for Vaughan. A fleeting moment, where Lucerne felt brave enough to say it aloud. It’s something he shies away from. You see it all throughout AGW and this story. He loves Vaughan. He wants Vaughan. He fears Vaughan and everything that love and desire entail. The fear, though well founded, has to be overcome. Not to say that he should declare it from Buckingham Palace. I don’t want him dead. But, and this story takes some steps towards this, he shouldn’t be ashamed of loving a man nor afraid to admit it to his partners.
Bella, to her credit, has always been the most honest and communicative of the three. She has never shied away from what she wants, in the bedroom and in her relationship with the boys. She is brutally honest with herself, recognizing that Vaughan will never love her the way she loves him, the way he loves Lucerne. She is committed to Vaughan, though. She’s all in, unless and until he decides he doesn’t want her. There’s some annoyance with her too. It comes across most especially here. During a scene with Vaughan, and involving a glass dildo, she’s goes on a rant about how he never takes her “as nature intended”, meaning PIV intercourse. She complains that since they are estranged from Lucerne, there is no reason that Vaughan should avoid it. In Phantasmagoria, it is established that that particular brand of sex is Lucerne’s responsibility. Vaughan, though, doesn’t enjoy PIV intercourse nearly as much as anal, so he doesn’t do it. What annoys me, though, is Bella’s use of the phrase “as nature intended.” She has a whole paragraph of internal thought about missing it, despite Vaughan keeping her well satisfied otherwise. WTF, Bella?!
There is hope, though. Lucerne misses them terribly. He dreams of them; cannot truly imagine a fulfilling life without them. Vaughan is, slowly, coming to terms with his feelings for Bella and, vaguely, recognizes the negative effects of his single-minded pursuit of Lucerne. Bella hasn’t really dealt with what it meant to her that Lucerne left them. In fact, she does a fairly good job of not talking or thinking about him, which I hope will become a major part of The Serpent’s Kiss. The three of them really need to talk, not just fall into bed (or the rug or the great hall table or the breakfast room sideboard or the sitting room settee). Lucerne needs to set boundaries, Vaughan needs to be honest about his feelings, and Bella needs to admit that Lucerne walking out on them hurt her.
This felt like an interlude, important to character development, but not the main story, much like Indiscretions. Oh, and it was too short. I would happily read many more stories about these three and their friends, who I’m hoping make a return. It would be really interesting to see Emma, Lyle, and Darleston (of Her Husband’s Lover) interact with Bella, Vaughan, and Lucerne. What would that look like, these six people navigating a society that says their love is unnatural and punishable by death, literally? Would they figure out the dynamics of the other?
I’m still invested in these characters, love Madelynne Ellis to pieces, and I eagerly await The Serpent’s Kiss.