|“Ye gods, it’s true. That dreadful girl is back.” Thus does Lucien de Grey, Duke of Marchmont, greet his childhood nemesis, Miss Zoe Octavia Lexham, when he sees her for the first time in twelve years. Marchmont has come to Lord Lexham’s home to defend his guardian and mentor against yet another imposter, claiming to be the long lost Zoe. Instead he finds a beautiful, alluring young woman who is clearly the same person who made his life miserable her childish antics. But she’s very different too; spending twelve years in a harem will do that to a person.
Zoe was a child of twelve when she disappeared from a Cairo bazaar. Lord Lexham had, rather foolishly given the state of the world in 1806, decided to take his youngest daughter with the family on a tour of the east. When the maid accompanying her told the story that the hoydenish Zoe had run away, it seemed eminently believable. Zoe was always running away. Her escape and return has created a cause célèbre in London. Zoe has become known as the “Harem Girl” and her very respectable sisters are convinced that only her exile to the farthest Hebrides will restore the family’s position, that or Zoe’s marriage to a very powerful and influential man.
Lucien’s arrival on the scene seems providential to Zoe. Determined to regain the life and position she had lost so many years earlier and discovering that the duke has no wives, she sees him as her solution. She asks Marchmont to marry her. She quickly lists her assets. She is still a virgin, her sickly husband having been unable to use his “instrument of delight.” She knows all the arts of pleasing a man, she can sing and dance and write poetry, she loves children, and she can manage a household, even eunuchs.
Needless to say, her sisters are horrified at Zoe’s forwardness. Lucien, on the other hand, is amused and, to his own surprise, tempted. This childhood bane of his existence has become a lovely, sensuous creature, very different from the women of his world. She is both Zoe and not Zoe and there is the promise of untold delights in her eyes. But he declines her offer of marriage. She need not marry him to achieve her goal of respectability. He will help her in any event because of his deep fondness for and gratitude to Lord Lexham. Yet Lucien finds himself more than a little put out when Zoe greets his rejection with every indication of relief. After all, she remarks, she’s been married since she was twelve and would just as soon enjoy her new found freedom.
Thus begins a relationship which can only have one ending, but what fun the reader has watching Lucien and Zoe dance the steps from attraction to desire to love.
Zoe is a delight. She is no innocent and she is no fool. To survive in an alien and dangerous world, she has had to be clever and astute. To escape from that world, she has had to daring and courageous. To reestablish herself in English society, she has to use all of her hardly won wisdom and wiles. She may have been victimized, but she was never a victim. She knows what she wants and she will do what she needs to achieve her goal. Chase has created in Zoe a memorable heroine.
Lucien is a more conventional hero. He is, by virtue of his title, his wealth and his good looks, a leader in his society. He inherited his position at a young age and has drifted through life, not taking anything very seriously. He is a man of his class and his time. Yet his life has been marked by dreadful losses: his parents when he was ten, his beloved elder brother when he was fifteen and, yes, his little friend Zoe two years later. Perhaps he refuses to take anything seriously because caring has hurt too much.
Chase has a special ability to mix emotion with humor and there is plenty of the latter in Don’t Tempt Me. Zoe’s unintended faux pas as she navigates society are fun, as are her interactions with her four older sisters. Likewise, Chase is very good at creating sexual tension. Let me say that the tension between Lucien and Zoe and its release made me glad the air conditioning was working. Zoe certainly does know how to please a man and Lucien is very pleased.
It might be argued that the subplot that drives the last third of the book feels a bit forced, but, after rereading the last chapters, I concluded that it was very important for illuminating the characters of both Zoe and Lucien and for bringing their love story to its happy ending.
Loretta Chase has long been one of my auto-buys but her books have not always been keepers. Don’t Tempt Me is a story that I will want to revisit.