The Last Hellion

Lord Perfect

Miss Wonderful

Mr. Impossible

Not Quite a Lady

 
Your Scandalous Ways
by Loretta Chase
(Avon, $6.99, PG-13) ISBN 978-06-123124-7
*****
Hesitating about picking up Loretta Chase's latest? Here are more than five reasons why it is a five-star book.

An unusual setting
If you are interested in reading about early nineteenth-century Europe but tired of Belgrave Square, Almack's and the occasional jaunt to Bath, give the City of Bridges a try. Venice's labyrinthine streets, murky canals, and infamous palazzi  make it an excellent backdrop for stealth, intrigue, and amorous rendezvous. The Queen of the Adriatic is not, however, the place for tame sentimental attachments. Its Italian soul welcomes lust and passion, while its decadent spirit offers comfort to unconventional and world-wearied hearts. No wonder courtesans, spies and rogues of every kind competed for adventure, power and wealth in the City of Light.

Captivating intrigue
Enter Francesca Bonnard and her precious bundle. When her husband broke her heart and disgraced her in a very public divorce, she sought redemption and revenge. The first she obtained by moving to the continent and becoming a high-ranking courtesan. One minor indiscretion might have caused the English bon ton to snub her, but elsewhere her cause célèbre (along with her fabled exotic appeal) opened doors to Europe's best houses, beds – and banks. Taunting her ex-husband with these invitations was only one part of her revenge. The other came in the form of stolen letters which would prove his treasonous pursuits. Now, he is on his way to becoming the next English Prime Minister, and both his opponents and his friends would like to get their hands on them. Francesca is determined to pull the strings, even as dangerous attacks multiply.

Of course, damaging letters and the spies who go after them feature in many romance plots. What's different here is Chase's adroit and playful handling of the matter. The fact that the lovers are also competing to be the master (or mistress) seducer adds quite a lot.

A delightful heroine
A hooker for a heroine? Okay, Francesca is a very classy demi-rep. Still, she is not exactly the most moral of maidens. Romance readers want heroines who are not only beautiful, intelligent, independent and self-reliant. They must also be virtuous — even in the face of adversity. If these fair maidens really must sink, then at the very least they should be penitent. Francesca, however, remains completely unapologetic. And rightly so, I say. She laughs, she cries, above all she enjoys life and its many surprises. Although there are sad moment (I really felt for the disillusioned girl she once was), there is none of the angst that weighs down many stories of this kind. How can the hero not fall in love with her? How can he not admire the determination and joy which make her so special? He can't — and that makes him pretty special too.

A roguish, heart-buster of a hero
James Cordier, the younger son of an English aristocrat, has been working as a thief and spy for his government. He is certain he will soon put Francesca, along with all the subterfuge and double-dealings of his life, behind him. His first forays work: Francesca does not see through his many disguises. (This slow start is not the best part of the book.) Soon, however, his master strategy of playing hard-to-get fails, and he is the one who must work hard to get her. Boy, do I love it when a conceited man gets his comeuppance! And boy, do I love him when he accepts his defeat with grace, humor and a good deal of tolerance and tenderness to boot.

Sex, banter, romance and so much more
Still not convinced? Here are some more reasons. First, the supporting cast is outstanding: no milksop friends in supporting roles; no standard cardboard-cut bad guys. Second, the sex scenes, which perfectly fit the characters, are well-written, audacious, and terribly erotic. In fact, several are almost on par with the ground-breaking glove scene in Lord of Scoundrels. And, of course, there is Loretta Chase's legendary writing skills. She is in particular form here, especially when it comes to James's and Francesca's witty exchanges.

If the above reasons are not enough, I suspect nothing will be. For those who need no further convincing, it is time to stop reading this and to enjoy the real thing.  

--Mary Benn


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