Rogue in Red Velvet
I was initially drawn to Rogue in Red Velvet because of its setting of London in the 1750s, which makes a nice change from my regular diet of Regency and Victorian set stories. It’s the first in a new series from Ms Connolly featuring the so-called Emperors of London, a group of men (all related) who are rich and powerful movers and shakers in society.
Lord Alexander Ripley is young, handsome, wealthy – and thus a prime target for marriage-minded young ladies and their equally determined mamas. Trying to hide from one particular young woman who can’t seem to take “no” for an answer, Alex stumbles into the library of the house he’s staying in and meets Mrs Constance Rattigan, the goddaughter of Lord Downholland. She is eschewing the house-party and is currently engaged in seeking out and cataloguing all the documentation she can find which relates to the family’s long history and traditions. Immediately struck by Connie’s good sense and complete lack of artifice, Alex offers his help, which Connie gratefully accepts – some of those books are bloody heavy!
Connie has noticed Alex before, of course, but being a widow of advanced years (she’s twenty-eight!) knows she’s never going to be able to do more than look. Even though she’s about to sign the contracts for her betrothal to Jasper Dankworth, her godmother’s nephew, she decides to live a little and enjoy Alex’s company for the brief period they can spend together. Alex proves to be a good companion – kind, intelligent and deeply honourable, in spite of his rakish reputation with the ladies.
Their brief idyll ends and Alex returns to London on the same day as Connie’s soon-to-be-betrothed arrives. Connie married for love the first time, but things did not work out at all well, so she has determined that her second marriage will be for more practical reasons. Dankworth is young and good-looking, although known to be a little unsteady. Lord and Lady Downholland think that marriage to Connie will settle him down, and are keen to promote the match, which will also keep their property in the family, as they have no children of their own and Connie is the closest thing they have to a daughter.
The contracts are signed and a date for the wedding is set. Connie travels to London in order to make her own preparations – but never reaches her destination. Dankworth’s need for money has become desperate and he has found himself a bigger prize, but breaking his contract with Connie will ruin him. So he comes up with a vile plan which will enable him to legally rid himself of any obligations. He has Connie drugged, abducted and taken to a Covent Garden brothel, there to be publicly auctioned off to the highest bidder.
This aspect of the plot may seem a little far-fetched at first glance, but it’s true that these sorts of auctions did take place at the time and that the “auctioneers” were less than scrupulous about the provenance of their “goods”.
While Alex is able to find Connie and get her away, the fact that she was seen in such a place will ruin her unless he can come up with a plan which will convince society that the very decent and proper Mrs Rattigan could not possibly have been there. In order to do this, he enlists the help of his cousin Julius, the Earl of Winterton – one of the leaders of society (who will, I imagine, have his own book at some point) as his notice cannot fail to lend consequence to Connie and make the gossips think twice. Alex is also determined to crush Jasper Dankworth for what he did – which will have the fortunate side effect of dealing a blow to the entire Dankworth family who, it seems, is engaged in some age-old rivalry with the “Emperors”.
I enjoyed the story, which moves along at a swift pace, and in which the author displays a considerable eye for historical detail in terms of the fashion and customs, and especially in her descriptions of the areas of London her characters visit. I was especially interested in her exploration of the function of the various Coffee Houses, many of which bore names which we still recognise today, and which in a way fulfil the same functions – such as Lloyds Coffeehouse, which sold insurance to cover the many deals made at the Cocoa Tree (the house Alex frequents) – and whose name today is recognised as one of the world’s largest purveyors of insurance.
Alex is a lovely beta-hero who is devoted to Connie from the outset and determined to do whatever he can to help her. This determination brings the pair into conflict as Connie feels that Alex is riding roughshod over her concerns and when he fails to consult her about some of the actions he takes against Dankworth, but fortunately, their falling out is short-lived and isn’t allowed to fester until it is blown out of all proportion.
Connie, too is a very likeable character and she and Alex have great chemistry, although I think her determination to refuse his offer of marriage is a little too drawn out. When he first proposes, she is still legally bound by her contract with Dankworth, so I can understand her refusal at that point. But once she’s free, she employs the “I’m not good enough for you, so I won’t marry you for your own good” argument, which is one I just don’t like. I see her reasoning, and can understand why she’d think that – but it didn’t work for me, and that, together with the fact that the ending seems rushed is the main reason my final rating is a B- and not higher.
I was also a little confused as to the reasons behind the feud between the Dankworths and the Emperors, as it was never fully explained. And even though I know Ms Connolly is an author who pays a great deal of attention to research and historical detail, there were times when I found the tone to be a little too modern. But neither of those things detracted from my enjoyment of the story, which is enjoyable and well-written. Rogue in Red Velvet is a good start to what promises to be an entertaining series, and I will certainly be looking out for the next book when it’s released in October.