Sunday 21 June 2015

#CBR7 Book 63: "The Duke and the Lady in Red" by Lorraine Heath

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Rosalind "Rose" Sharpe is a con woman, in London looking for her next victims. Posing as as the widow of a man killed in India, her story is that she's currently low on funds, as her legal counsel are trying to get her inheritance transferred - naturally a complicated and time-consuming process. When she meets the Duke of Avendale, she is immediately drawn to him, knowing that he is rich enough that if she plays her figurative cards correctly, she might never have to swindle another man again, but also wary, as he is much more powerful and ruthless than any of the men she's used her feminine wiles on before.

The Duke of Avendale, known for his wealth, scandalous behaviour and all-round rakishness, is bored, even more so after his former cronies are all settling down with matrimony and domestic bliss. When he sees the striking Mrs. Sharpe in a red dress at what used to be his favourite gaming hell (which is now opening its doors to women - what has the world come to?), he suspects he might have found just the thing to pull him out of the funk he's currently in. He's deeply attracted to her, even more so because she refuses to give into his immediate attempts at seduction. He orders his house cleared of gamblers, drinkers and floozies, intending to make it a place suitable to entertain the enigmatic widow. So when he discovers her about to leave town with quite a substantial sum of her money, and her servants in tow, he's furious, but also realises that he can have what he most desires.

Avendale and Rose make a deal. For a week in his company and his bed, she can keep all the money she was trying to steal, he will pay her current debt and he won't report her to the authorities. Rose will be at his disposal day and night, as long as she gets two hours every afternoon to go home, and Avendale can't ask any questions. Avendale thinks he has the upper hand, but quickly discovers that Rose has a lot of secrets and that the delectable lady in red is going to change his life irrevocably.

The Duke and the Lady in Red is the third book in the Scandalous Gentlemen of St. George series, which in itself is a sequel series of sorts to Heath's previous Scoundrels of St. James series. This series concerns the various offspring of the heroes and heroines of the first series. Can this book be read as a stand-alone? I would absolutely say so, as I haven't read the book concerning Avendale's mother and her husband, nor any of the previous books in the series. The incomparable Mrs. Julien has, however, and based on her reviews, I'd say I may check out the first one (based also on the cameo appearances of the couple in this book, they were cute) and give the second a miss. Ms. Heath's books are frequently romances I enjoy, but they don't really make any impact or stay with me for very long.

There are some exceptions, however, this being one of them. Avendale is the least interesting part of the story. He really is your stereotypical wealthy and dissolute rake. He's heavily into his drinking, gambling and promiscuous sex and naturally, because he is at an age when his former partners in debauchery are getting married, no longer interested in a life of constant hedonism, he's getting oh so bored. He barely speaks to his mother or younger siblings and is naturally quite lonely, although he would never admit this.

Rosalind is a great heroine, though, who more than makes up for the rather uninspired take on the Duke. She has been a successful con woman for years, not just for the thrill of it or to live a life of leisure, but because she's supporting a household of very unusual servants and her beloved brother, Harry, who for reason's I really don't want to spoil can't really be out and about in society. The relationship between Rosalind and her brother, or with her servants, who are really more like friends who work in her household because they have nowhere else to go, is lovely. It's quite clear that her dishonest means of earning money weighs on her, and that she'd much rather find a more honest way of supporting herself and her dependents. By neccesity, her chosen lifestyle also means that they can never settle very long in one place, always having to be on the run from creditors and angry victims.

While Rosalind may have conned a number of men and merchants out of a lot of things, she's successfully managed to avoid having to play the whore. She's both surprised and slightly scared by the intense attraction she feels for Avendale and it's one of the reasons she's not as careful as she might have been, conning him out of too much money too quickly, and as a result getting caught. His suggestion that she spend a week with him seems to come as somewhat of a relief, as she's been fighting her instinctive need to give into his attempts at seduction. The fact that she's been posing as an experienced widow causes some initial difficulties, but having sworn to uphold their arrangement, Rose isn't about to let Avendale suddenly develop a conscience because of her inexperience.

Rose's brother is a wonderful character, and as I said, I don't want to go into the details as to why Rose feels she needs to swindle and con to make enough money to support them. Suffice to say, there are good reasons for why he's living hidden away in her town house. While Avendale's reaction when he found out may have been plausible, my disbelief was strained to the breaking point by the way everyone else treated Harry, as I just don't think people in Victorian society were that accepting and open-minded, no matter how kind an individual was or how powerful a friend and patron he had.

Still, it's a minor niggle and I really did enjoy this book a lot, after a bit of a slow start. Any romance that actually makes me cry can't be rated lower than 4 stars. As I said, I suspect I will be checking out When the Duke Was Wicked, the first book in the series, and keep picking up new books by Heath when they are published. But she's still only in my "buy on sale, or borrow at the library" list rather than the coveted auto-buy or pre-order lists.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

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