Desert Isle Keeper
Pursued for the Viscount's Vengeance
I’m going to start this review by saying the first thing that came into my head when I sat down to write it, which is this: don’t let the somewhat hackneyed title put you off reading this book. Pursued for the Viscount’s Vengeance is a much better story than the title might indicate, and author Sarah Mallory does a great job of turning what sounds like something that has been done many times before into something quite different.
James Laughton, Viscount Gilmorton – Gil – returns from the horrors of the Napoleonic Wars to discover that his two younger siblings are dead. Wracked by grief, seething with fury and mired in the guilt he feels because he wasn’t there when his family needed him, Gil vows to exact revenge upon the man he holds responsible for their deaths, Randolph, Lord Kirkster. He spends months plotting ways to destroy Kirkster, but when investigation proves that he is deeply in debt and pursuing a hedonistic lifestyle that means it is unlikely he will live for much longer, Gil discounts issuing a challenge or orchestrating the man’s financial ruin as a suitably painful method of avenging his siblings.
Kirkster does, however, have a sister, Deborah, to whom he seems to be very close, and Gil, determined that Kirkster must suffer as he has suffered, decides to make her the instrument of his revenge. It goes against the grain; he’s a decent, honourable man and has never set out to seduce a woman with a view to effecting her ruin, but he is determined to hit Kirkster where it will most hurt him – and besides, there’s a kind of poetic justice in the thought that Gil is going to do to Kirkster’s sister, what Kirkster did to his.
Travelling as plain Mr. Victor, Gil makes his way to the village of Fallbridge, and spends a little time observing his quarry. Deborah Meltham is not especially prepossessing; she’s twenty-four, practically on the shelf, and, as far as Gil can tell, organises her life around her brother. But when he finally comes face-to-face with her, he is surprised to discover that there is a lovely woman beneath the dowdy clothes, one whose smile transforms her and whose cool façade can’t quite disguise the hints of a passionate nature beneath. Gil realises almost immediately that if he could find another way to achieve his ends, he would take it, but it’s too late to go back, and, reflecting that it won’t be a hardship to court Miss Meltham, Gil sets about doing just that.
Ms. Mallory does a splendid job of building the relationship between Gil and Deborah in this first part of the story. It’s clear that Gil is in over his head; he’s falling hard for Deborah, in spite of his belief, fostered by long, harsh years in the military, that love only leads to pain and loss. Deborah – who spends most of her time worrying about her brother and trying to keep him on the straight and narrow – can’t help but be charmed by Gil, whose care and attention are things she’s not experienced for a very long time. They have great chemistry and the strength of their mutual attraction is palpable, which makes Deborah’s discovery of Gil’s true intent all the more devastating – for her and for the reader.
I said at the outset that Ms. Mallory has turned what could have been a fairly run-of-the-mill revenge story into something quite different, and it’s in the depiction of Deborah’s brother and his role in the story that this is most apparent. It’s obvious, in the first part of the book, that Randolph is in a pretty bad way – too much drink and too much high-stakes gambling has landed him in serious debt and had a deleterious effect on his health. When one of his so-called friends, Sir Sydney Warslow arrives, things between Deborah and Randolph – which are always somewhat fraught – get difficult quickly, as Warslow is bent on encouraging Randolph’s addictions – to laudanum as well as drink and gaming – and Deborah is more or less powerless in the face of his influence. It’s clear from the moment he appears that Warslow is up to no good, and the eagle-eyed reader will no doubt guess at some of his villainy, but then the author introduces a strong secondary plotline which ups the ante considerably, and which really brings home the truly precarious nature of Deborah’s situation, dependent as she is on a brother who is losing an already feeble fight against addiction.
Revenge stories are difficult to pull of successfully, especially when it’s the hero using the heroine as a pawn in a plot to injure someone else. Here, however, Ms. Mallory manages to avoid making Gil too unsympathetic by showing that he isn’t completely without a conscience and, later, that he doesn’t turn his back on Deborah when she really needs him. Deborah is a terrific heroine and I loved the way Gil gradually coaxes her out of her self-adopted role of ‘drudge/nurse’ to become a vibrant, confident woman who is prepared to stand up for herself and to admit to her own needs and desires. I also liked that she was sensible enough to realise when she needed help and wasn’t too foolishly stubborn or proud to ask for it.
At just 288 pages, Pursued for the Viscount’s Vengeance has quite a lot going on, but none of the storylines – the revenge plot, the romance, Warslow’s scheming – feel rushed or underdeveloped. There’s even an unexpected twist just before the end that works very well, and while the epilogue is perhaps a little too sweet, that’s really my only complaint about the book as a whole. With intriguing storylines and an attractive central couple who share a strong emotional connection, if you’re looking for a fresh take on a familiar trope you should consider picking this one up.