The Last Hellion by Loretta Chase
(Avon, $5.99, PG-13) ISBN: 0-380-77617-0
*****
When you were a child, did you ever experience that wonderful sense of anticipation when something special was going to happen? Maybe it was a birthday or Christmas or a trip or a special treat. And do you remember how often the reality seemed disappointing? Not that Christmas wasn't great or the trip a lot of fun or the special treat pretty special. It's just that you had built up such hopes and expectations that nothing could possibly measure up.

I deeply fear that for many devoted romance readers, The Last Hellion, the long-awaited sequel to Loretta Chase's widely praised Lord of Scoundrels will be just like those Christmases of yore an inevitable disappointment because the expectations have been so high.

So let me make one thing immediately clear: The Last Hellion is not as good a book as Lord of Scoundrels.. Some of the special chemistry that made LOS a classic is absent here. But this is nevertheless a very good book, one that draws you in, touches you, makes you care about the characters, makes you laugh, makes you think, makes you feel.

The hero of The Last Hellion is Vere Mallory, Duke of Ainswood, one of the disreputable friends of the hero of LOS. Vere is Duke even though he is a younger son of a younger son, for the Mallory family has been cursed by one death after another in the preceding decade. The most poignant death was that of Vere's nephew, Robin, the nine-year old sixth duke, felled by diphtheria. Nowhere is Chase's writing talent more on display than in the moving prologue when we feel Vere's pain as one after another his loved family members die. And we come to understand why he is such a hellion and why his behavior since becoming the seventh duke has been so irresponsible. How can he accept a position bought at the price of so many deaths?

The heroine is Lydia Grenville, the most popular writer for one of London's weekly magazines. Although Lydia's mother was the descendant of a marquess, her runaway marriage to an actor had led to her being disowned by her family. Lydia's life had been harsh; her mother had died young, her father was a wastrel and a gambler; her sister died when the family was sent to Marshalsea prison when her father could not pay her debts. After her father absconded to America, she had been raised by her eccentric great aunt and uncle who traveled widely if not always wisely.

Lydia has become a 19th century investigative reporter, with a particular interest in uncovering the perils that beset young women in London. When one day she sees a noted procuress with a new victim in tow, she rushes to the rescue. The Duke of Ainswood crosses Lydia's path at this point, and interferes in her confrontation with the evil madam. Lydia proceeds to deck him, treating him with the contempt his behavior and reputation seem to warrant, but is inexplicably attracted to this man who seems the epitome of all she despises.

For Vere, it is love at first punch (although he refuses to recognize his feelings for what they are.) And so begins a series of confrontations between this seemingly mismatched pair as they engage in one adventure after another. Nobody does humorous repartee between hero and heroine better than Chase. At times I was close to laughing out loud (Remember me, the dour Scot.) And she likewise does a great job of building and sustaining sexual tension. Her love scenes are elegantly incendiary.

There is a lot more in this book: a charming secondary romance between Bertie Trent and Lydia's protege; breaking and entering; a carriage race; a rescue of Vere's wards from the the evil procuress; the reappearance of Dain from LOS; the discovery of Lydia's true parentage. But Chase never loses control over her story and all the parts come together to provide an exciting tale that never lost my interest.

Central to the story are Vere and Lydia. Lydia is a marvelous heroine bright, strong-minded, ambitious, caring, daring as well strikingly attractive. One can believe that Vere would come to love her and that she can heal his wounds. Vere is a more familiar hero the rake extraordinaire, the care for nobody, who really cares too much but who flees his pain until Lydia (or as he charmingly calls her, Grenville) forces him to face it. An altogether satisfying romance.

I agonized (as I always do) about what rating to give The Last Hellion. There is no question that I recommend it strongly to fans of historical romance. But does it deserve the coveted five heart rating? As is ever the case, the comparison factor came into play. The Last Hellion is certainly better than the books I have been recommending; indeed, it is the best historical romance I have read so far this year. And thus the 5 heart rating. Because, I will be placing this book on my keeper shelf right next to Lord of Scoundrels.. And I imagine other fans of Loretta Chase will be doing the same.

--Jean Mason


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