A Scoundrel’s Surrender
Sometimes you can judge a book by its cover and the couple on the cover of Ms. Petersen’s latest is downright skanky. The chick looks like a stripper at a mid-level men’s club. She’s got streaked layered hair, lots of black mascara, lip-glossed pink lips, and is aiming a sexy pout at whoever took this photo. The guy’s sporting “hot dude” stubble and a chest so smooth I suspect he waxes. They both look too modern and too much like possible porn stars. The cover of screams sizzling contemporary; its prose drones dismal historical.
A Scoundrel’s Surrender has a boorish bastard for a hero. Two years ago Caleb Talbot found out he wasn’t his father’s son and freaked out. He ran away from home, refused any contact with his loving family (who, with the exception of his older brother, had no idea why he’d dumped them), and took up drinking copiously in low-rent taverns. Caleb is a jerk with really bad timing. A few days before he did his disappearing act, he’d made love to Marah Farnsworth, the virginal best friend of his sister-in-law. When Caleb bolts, he does so without offering any explanation to Marah. The guy’s an ass.
Two years later, his brother Justin tracks him down and begs that he return to the family manse. The man Caleb once called “my lord” (dear old Dad) is dying. Caleb swallows his ale and his pain and returns to London. There he sees Marah, who has been invited by Justin’s wife, Victoria, for a visit. (Marah hied off to the sleepy shire of Baybary after her one-night stand with Caleb, so devastating was his betrayal.) The moment she speaks his name, he is “undone all over again.”
Poor, poor Caleb. Despite being “devilishly handsome” and the kind of lover that makes women “forget every other man who ever touched” them, he hasn’t been able to rise to the occasion with anyone since Marah. He burns, aches, throbs, and swells for her. Every glance at her reminds him of her beauty — she’s one of those women who is so enchanting she seems to “glide weightlessly rather than walk;” her eyes are a “dark blue heaven” — and of that bliss-filled afternoon when she “shivered in pleasure beneath him on the settee in his brother’s house.”
Marah is still angry at Caleb, and yet, seeing the rude self-indulgent jackass mired in maudlin pain, she can’t stay away from him. She too has daddy issues — her father abandoned her after her mother died giving birth to Marah — and she just can’t keep herself from reaching out to comfort Caleb. Like so many misses in historical fiction (that misses) she has a “traitorous” body. She “shudders” at their slightest touch; she dreams each night of “Caleb’s touch and all the pleasure” he could give her; his kiss is like “food when she was starving and liquid in the desert.”
The novel is mawkish, irritating, and ripe with many of the clichés depressingly standard in Regency romances. Marah tumbles off balance and falls into Caleb’s arms, where he then takes the kiss he knows she wants but has denied him. Late one night, Marah can’t sleep, pulls on her wrapper, and heads to the library where Caleb is drowning his sorrows and the two have a heated encounter. Marah is courted by a cretin of a mercenary beau whose kiss leaves her cold. Marah and Caleb accomplish an unlikely carnal feat in a carriage. The tavern wenches are huge-breasted and of easy virtue. The lesson that family is about more than bloodlines is hammered home over and over again. There’s even the dreaded epilogue in which every facet of the story is surgically resolved and true love conquers all. As I read, I kept writing in the margins, “Just kill me now.” A Scoundrel’s Surrender is the third and last book in the Billingham Bastards series. For this I am grateful. I never want to encounter Caleb or Marah again. And, unless someone whose literary judgment I trust tells me I must read another book by Ms. Petersen, I’m happily quit of her as well.