Elizabeth Hoyt’s Maiden Lane series of books set in Georgian London has been consistently entertaining, well-written and researched and has produced a number of memorable characters and sensual love stories which have proved incredibly popular. Amazingly, now nine books in, the series shows no sign of running out of steam, as this latest offering, Sweetest Scoundrel is another enjoyable tale, this time taking a most unlikely couple as its protagonists.
This book picks up the storyline followed in both Darling Beast and Dearest Rogue, of the rebuilding of the popular London pleasure garden, Harte’s Folly, which was burned to the ground at the end of book six, Duke of Midnight. Here, the renovation work is well under way with the grand re-opening just a month away and all is going well – until the Duke of Montgomery’s agent threatens to withdraw the duke’s financial support. Mr Harte has ignored all requests to have his account books inspected, the nitty-gritty of receipts and book-keeping not being something he is overly concerned with, his focus being much more on the bigger picture of getting a roof onto the theatre and finding a new castrati to perform the lead role in his new opera commission.
Miss Eve Dinwoody is the illegitimate half-sister of Valentine Napier, the enigmatic and Machiavellian Duke of Montgomery, and given Eve’s mental acuity and facility with facts and figures, her brother had no qualms about appointing her his “man” of business while he travels abroad. Harte – who is actually Asa Makepeace, the remaining unmarried Makepeace sibling – is furious at the threat to his life’s work, but as the rebuilding cannot continue without the duke’s money, he has to swallow his pride and try to make the “plain as a shovel” harpy change her mind.
He invites her to come to see the Folly for herself, and when she does, his obvious passion for the place impresses her. She decides to take over managing the finances herself so that she can keep an eye on her brother’s investment, and finds herself becoming more and more fascinated by the larger-than-life, blatantly sensual Asa, a man possessed of the sort of overwhelming masculinity that normally terrifies her.
As Eve and Asa ease themselves into a working relationship they begin to get to know each other and even to form a friendship of sorts. Eve is prim, shrewd and not initially prepossessing – not at all the sort of woman to whom Asa is usually drawn. Yet there is something beneath the surface, a vulnerability and a sense of untapped sensuality about her which intrigues him.
As the work on the theatre proceeds, a series of “accidents” threaten not only the opening night, but the lives of those associated with the project. Is Asa being targeted by a rival, or is there something even more sinister at work? I’m not telling, but even though the story does take rather a turn for the melodramatic towards the end, I was still on the edge of my seat wanting to find out the truth.
The novel is well-paced and intelligently written and I especially enjoyed the insight we are given into the world of eighteenth century theatre. Not only does the building itself have to be attended to, but there is also a company to be built, an orchestra to be rehearsed and singers to be engaged, and it all adds a lovely touch of background colour to the main story.
Eve and Asa are as different as chalk and cheese; she refined and reserved, he earthy and shameless, but somehow, as a couple they work, each of them bringing out admirable qualities in the other. Asa is a crude but deliciously sexy hero – a real force of nature who doesn’t give a fig what he looks like, swears like a trooper and knows he’s damn good at what he does, whether it’s running his pleasure garden or satisfying a woman in bed. With him, Eve begins to work through the fears she still suffers as the result of a horrific childhood experience at the same time as she brings out his gentler, more protective side and also encourages him to reunite with his estranged family. The scene in which he takes Eve to visit his brothers, sisters, spouses and children is very well done – a brilliantly realised uncomfortable family situation in which it takes a fight to start to clear the air! – and it’s a nice treat for fans to catch up with some of the characters from the earlier books.
While I think that Asa’s attraction to Eve appeared rather quickly, given his initial reaction to her was that she was a plain, skinny harpy with a beak of a nose, overall the love story is well developed with lots of moments of simple affection as well as ones of more overt sensuality. Ms Hoyt makes the most of Asa’s bawdy, flagrantly sexual nature in the love scenes; this is a man who knows what he wants and how to get it, yet he is also capable of restraint and great tenderness. The trauma Eve suffered gave her a fear and distrust of men, and I appreciated the way the author has Asa take things slowly between them, seducing Eve with words long before he even so much as touches her. I’ve often read books where such trauma is magically cured by the hero’s mighty wang, but fortunately, that doesn’t happen here. The real highlight of the book, however, is the way Eve, deciding that she has had enough of her solitary life and of living in a constant state of fear, starts to take her life back. Her discovery of her inner strength and courage is the emotional heart of the book and a joy to behold.
As she has done in all the other books in the series, Ms Hoyt admirably sets up the next one by introducing us to Miss Bridget Crumb, the efficient, no-nonsense housekeeper at the Duke of Montgomery’s London residence. The duke himself has proved an unpleasant character in previous books; a collector of secrets and a blackmailer, the only person he truly cares about is Eve and she is the only person in his life who loves him unconditionally. I can’t wait to see how the author redeems him and turns him into the hero of his own romance.
For now, though, Sweetest Scoundrel is another fine addition to this long-running series and one I enjoyed reading very much.