Dear Mrs. Merrill,
Thank you for sending me the arc of your newest Regency, “A Wicked Liaison.” I like how you stick to convention Regency lore yet still give us something new. Most of the titled characters are either villains, idiots or snobs while the hero is a plain Mister. Ah, bliss. And there’s no sudden inheriting of a title to change his circumstances. More bliss.
Anthony de Portnay Smythe is a thief and a gentleman. But as he’s long since put thieving to support himself and his dependants behind him and works for the government now (in a suitably shadowy way) I didn’t let this bother me. His newest assignment, however, rocks him to his core as he’s directed to recover two £10 plates for the treasury. Lost in a shady card game to one of the best villains I’ve read about in a while, getting them back is not optional for the government. But that isn’t what kicks Tony in the gut. The chance that his lifelong love might be the mistress of the man involved and as much a traitor as Lord Jack Barton makes Tony almost sick.
Which is why, after climbing the ivy leading to her third floor bedroom, he’s relieved to discover that Constance, the Dowager Duchess of Wellford, has neither the engraved plates nor the will to be a traitor. He’s distressed though to see evidence of something amiss in the house. Where she should have lots of little nick-nacks and fal-de-rols, Constance’s home is strangely bare. What’s going on here? As the widow of a rich peer, Constance should be living in luxury or at least be well to do.
But Constance, whose now deceased male relatives must have been drunk or sniffing glue when negotiating her marriage contract, is sinking ever further into debt. After selling off whatever she can to pay her bills and try to visibly maintain her social standing while hunting for a new husband, she’s near despair. Her husband’s nephew is more concerned with the fun of being a new Duke than with the duties and responsibilities attendant upon him and one of the things he’s shirked is paying her allowance. Constance is also discovering that quite a few men view her widowed and childless status in less than honorable terms. Something that her most persistant unwanted suitor, the slimey Lord Barton, encourages with murmered rumors which chase off anyone who might offer matrimony.
Well, now Tony has two reasons to bring the dastard low. He might not have the social standing to marry the woman he’s adored from afar but, by God, Barton’s not going to mess with her while Tony can stop it. And can Tony ever stop it. I like that he’s not hampered by any rules of gentlemanly behavior. As he tells Barton at one point, he’s going to stay a live coward rather than give anyone the chance to run him through or shoot him. Lessons his elder brothers didn’t heed, thereby landing Tony with the care of their destitute families. And when Barton doesn’t play fair, Tony feels free, with the help of his servant, to take a fabulous revenge.
Constance is a delight as well. I have no problems with the fact that she’s out to try and parlay her beauty into a second advantageous marriage. It’s the Regency era and options for women were few. She’s smart enough to know what she’s got to bargain with and that time is against her. She does the best she can with what the men who’ve failed her allow her and somehow manages to keep her head above water, though barely, long past when most women would have tossed in the towel. What really makes her stand out for me is that when the chips were down, she realized that help might not be on its way and that she needed to come up with a way to save herself. Which she did.
As mentioned earlier, Lord Barton is delicious, smiling evil. He made my skin crawl whenever he appeared. I could feel how menaced Constance was by him. His actions are never over the top and no matter how much I hated him, I have to admit that he puts a lot of thought into how to manipulate people to get exactly what he wants. I also thought the servants to be wonderful characters. Patrick and Susan are devoted to their respective employers even if Patrick is sadly lacking in humble respect for Tony.
There were two issues that Regency sticklers might have with things in the story. I do remember a long discussion about the law against in-laws marrying in England that was held on the yahoo Regency site but decided not to get my knickers in a twist over it since it’s not central to the story at all. I also wondered that Constance would have had such a problem with her allowance. Wouldn’t it have been handled by her late husband’s lawyers and come from her dower? Unless maybe he married her without a marriage portion?
The misunderstanding that develops towards the end is really not too much of one given what Tony himself told Constance and how she viewed this in light of her first marriage. She has viable reasons for deciding not to accept Tony’s proposals and for being reluctant to go to him.
All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed this story and my chance to get an early glimpse of it. I was so impressed that one of the purchases I made during the Harlequin sale in early December was the prequel to “AWL,” “An Unladylike Offer.” I can only hope it holds up to my expectations for it. B+