The premise is that our hero James, the Earl of Cambourne, is set on retrieving a debt from a card sharp when he discovers that the girl sharing his cheap lodgings is not his mistress but his innocent and surprisingly well-bred daughter, Lucy. Naturally he’s handsome and she’s beautiful (aren’t they always?) so the two have the hots for each other in no time flat. Before long, he’s buying her cake and coal and offering to take her out of poverty and the reach of her flaky father by making her his mistress. Now, on the one hand he never forces the issue and even spends time ‘courting’ her to ensure she’s happy with her choice, but on the other hand, since her father has abandoned her and her options are, essentially, starvation or him, what choice does she have?
The part of the story that focuses on the growing love between the two of them is very much the strongest part of the book. Charles Fox and his supposed mistress, Elizabeth Armistead (in fact, they had been secretly married for some years) are introduced as a way to raise the question of the status of mistresses in Regency society. There’s a telling moment when James and Lucy are at Vauxhall’s and bump into some of his relations. Naturally, he can’t introduce Lucy to the ladies because she’s about to become his mistress, and she begins to realise just what she’s letting herself in for (although considering the alternative is starvation or worse, a little social disapproval seems a small price to pay).
Behind the romance is the nastiness of card sharps and the Regency underworld, where everyone is terrified into loyalty and obedience, and there’s a knife to the throat for anyone who steps out of line. I didn’t enjoy this element of the story but needless to say everything comes right in the end, the bad guys get their comeuppance and James realises at the very, very last minute that he really wants to marry Lucy. Phew. So that’s all right then. Even so, it took him a very long time to get to that point, and I strongly disapproved of his tendency to bed the heroine directly after these moments of high tension, when she was at a low ebb. When a girl’s only just escaped being sold to the highest bidder to be raped, a gentleman should be content to tuck her into bed with a cup of tea and leave her in peace, no matter how much she pleads for something more. And yes, the sex scenes are pretty graphic.
An interesting story, with a spread of believable characters (I particularly liked the pickpocket with the heart of gold, Fitch) and some nicely romantic moments, even if the hero is very slow on the uptake about his own intentions. Four stars.