I had a love-hate relationship with Loretta Chase’ Knave’s Wager. Loved the heroine, hated the hero. Loved the writing, disliked the tropes. I didn’t want to put the book down, but not for the reasons anyone would keep reading a romance. That made it a difficult book to grade, but at least it meant I had plenty to write about.
Let’s start with the best part, the heroine. A widow in her late twenties, Lilith Davenant enjoys shepherding her young nieces through their Seasons. She’s superbly qualified to be a chaperone, since she has a spotless reputation and always behaves with cool, unruffled dignity. She’s honorable and smart and one of the best examples of a strong woman who doesn’t exhibit anachronistic feminism.
Julian, Lord Brandon, is a rich libertine whose constant air of cold ennui is disturbed when he hears that his cousin Robert has been fool enough to propose to Elise, his mistress. Not only is she a grasping tart who’s not of their social class, she’s French. Swallowing his revulsion, Julian meets with her to warn her off. Elise realizes at once that this man can bring all the weight of his power and rank down on her, so she says that if this is a duel, she would like a champion on her side. Her choice? Mrs. Davenant.
Elise tells Julian that if he can seduce Lilith, she will quit the field in defeat. To him, of course, this is a win-win proposition, since not only will he enjoy the widow’s charms, he’ll save his cousin from the French cat’s claws as well.
To that purpose, Julian bribes Lilith’s servants to keep him informed of her whereabouts, shows up wherever she goes, and maneuvers to get her alone whenever possible, despite her evident dislike of him and the risk to her reputation. When she tells him she is engaged, he shrugs. What does that have to do with anything? Besides, the man she’s chosen is a stupid, balding bore, so she’ll have a far better time in Julian’s bed.
The writing is so good that I felt all of Lilith’s uneasiness and fear. Readers know that despite Julian’s campaign of manipulation and harassment, he won’t actually force himself on her, but she can’t be certain of that. Especially since, when she’s riding in Hyde Park, he tells her to dismount or he’ll drag her out of the saddle, so he seemed quite willing to put his hands on her without her consent. I’m not fond of the trope where the hero stalks the heroine, and in a historical the man typically has far more power while the woman often has no way to defend herself.
In stories that rely on this trope, there’s always a point where the heroine is worn down by both the hero’s refusal to take no for an answer and her body’s traitorous responses, so she agrees to whatever he wants. If you don’t mind spoilers, that happens here as well, so Julian buys a house and decks it out as a love nest, complete with sachet-scented lingerie, at which point I dubbed him Lord Sleaze. But then a friend tells Lilith about an overheard conversation between him and Elise, discussing the wager (he wasn’t planning to tell Lilith the truth, which is entirely in character).
So when he arrives to whisk her off to paradise, she puts him in his place with a few cold, well-chosen words. And he slinks away. I stopped and read this scene again, it was so enjoyable. Even better was the follow-up, where Julian retreats to the empty love nest, realizes what he’s done, and thinks that in a few years he’ll be an aging roué with nothing to show for it. I reread that too.
But that’s not what I read romances for. I want to care about the hero, not savor the Schadenfreude as the consequences of his deceitful schemes catch up with him. I would also have preferred it if he and Lilith had decided to work matters out between them, but instead they’re reunited when her niece and his cousin pretend to run away so Lilith and Julian will be forced to travel together to find them. It just felt contrived.
And while Julian is a chastened and humbler person after his defeat, the last quarter of the book wasn’t enough to make up for the rest of it. I was relieved, though, that Elise didn’t end up dead, destitute, or humiliated. Actually, now I wish the book had been about Lilith and Elise going on a road trip together, leaving Julian behind in the love nest with the sachet-scented lingerie.
That said, the writing is superb. The characters come to life, their dialogue sparkles, and there are touches of droll humor throughout the narrative. So even though Knave’s Wager didn’t quite work for me, I’ll happily pick up another of Loretta Chase’s romances at any time, and readers who like the tropes in this book better than I do should enjoy it.