That Despicable Rogue
Virginia Heath registered on my radar when her début novel came out in the Spring of 2016, but I didn’t manage to get around to reading it. I did, however, pick up her next book, Her Enemy at the Altar, and enjoyed it very much – on the strength of that one book, I decided I had a new author to follow by virtue of the fact that Ms. Heath’s writing is accomplished, her characterisation is strong and she has a knack for humour and good dialogue. I finally got around to reading That Despicable Rogue and was pleased to discover that it’s every bit as well-written as her other books, and that had I not known in advance that it was her first published novel, I would never have discerned that from reading it, as it’s a very confident piece of work.
Seven years before the story begins, and in the wake of an unpleasant scandal, Lady Hannah Steers was banished from London and sent to live with her two aunts in Yorkshire by her brother, the Earl of Runcorn. At the time, he promised he would recall her to London once the gossip had died down, but somehow that never happened, and Hannah has remained in Yorkshire, her life a never-ending stream of monotony so dull that it’s almost debilitating.
Several years later, Hannah learns that her brother is dead. Having lost his entire fortune and the family home at the gaming tables, he then proceeded to blow his brains out and has left his sister with nothing. She hears that his opponent was one Ross Jameson, a man whose name appears regularly in the scandal sheets which gleefully report his exploits with women and any number of other unsavoury facts about his debauched existence. He’s a self-made man, which means he is looked down on by the great and the good, but his immense wealth cannot be ignored and he is admitted – if not welcomed – almost everywhere. Hannah is sure that a man of his reputation cannot possibly have beaten her brother fairly, and is convinced he must have cheated – but she has no way to prove it. Until, that is, she learns that, over a year since he won the place, Jameson is going to open up Barchester Hall, meaning that he will need to recruit more staff. Hannah has remained in touch with the cook, and with her help, secures the position of housekeeper, intending to use her access to all areas of the house to search through Jameson’s papers to see if she can find evidence to support her theory that he cheated her brother.
Ross Jameson has worked incredibly hard to achieve success and to make something of himself. The son of a criminal, Ross grew up in abject poverty alongside his mother and younger sister, who both suffered at the hands of his father, a gambler and drunkard. Determined to protect them both, Ross did what needed to be done when he had to, and since establishing himself in business, has taken good care of the ladies in his life, setting them up with a comfortable establishment in the country. He is opening up Barchester Hall now because it’s close to London and he knows his sister will soon want to come to town to enjoy the season.
Ross finds his new housekeeper a bit baffling – she’s the one woman he doesn’t seem able to charm with a smile or a quip – but she’s efficient and he is impressed with the improvements and alterations she suggests. And there’s something about her that makes him want to break through the barrier of frostiness she is so determined to maintain.
While she wants to continue to believe all the salacious gossip printed about Ross and is determined to prove him the worst kind of villain, Hannah can’t ignore the evidence of kindness and good-nature with which she is presented every day, or the inconvenient stirrings of attraction she is beginning to feel for him. She stubbornly tries to maintain her belief in his underhandedness, but knows she’s fighting a losing battle. Ross is an honourable, kind-hearted man who is fiercely protective of those he cares for – and Hannah is falling a little (or a lot) more in love every day.
The set-up is a fairly familiar one, but Ms. Heath puts a fresh spin on this well-used trope by her pleasantly different portrayal of Ross as a charming, funny, level-headed, all-round decent bloke rather than the sort of darkly brooding, ruthless bastard that is a much more frequent character-type found in this sort of story. Not to say he isn’t ruthless in his business dealings – he’d have to be to have made a fortune considering where he started out – but he’s clearly a very different man to the one Hannah had expected, given everything she’d read about him in the scandal sheets. In addition to the romance, there’s a nicely developed secondary plotline in which Ross suspects that Hannah might be a spy working for the East India Company, one of his main business rivals; and a look at the effects and intrusiveness of gossip – something not limited to the 21st century – as we discover why Ross is so steadfast in his determination never to respond to the accusations that are regularly thrown at him in the press.
The central characters are both very well-rounded, with Ross definitely being the star of the show. He’s pulled himself out of the gutter through sheer determination and hard work, but hasn’t become overly hard or cynical; and although Hannah is a little harder to like because she insists on hanging on to her poor opinions of Ross for longer than she probably should, it does make sense in the context of the story and her character.
There are plenty of sparks between Ross and Hannah, and I really liked the way his gently teasing manner – he nicknames her “Prim” – and his willingness to listen to her and take her ideas seriously are shown to be instrumental in the progress of the friendship that develops between them. The romance grows out of that friendship as they begin to understand more about each other and there’s a real sense of warmth and affection to all aspects of their relationship. In fact, the only thing I can really find to criticise in the book is the false note which is struck towards the end, when Hannah takes a highly improbable course of action following Ross’s discovery of her true identity.
But all in all, That Despicable Rogue is a thoroughly enjoyable read and one I’d definitely recommend to others. In my Best of 2016 post, I mentioned that I’d discovered some very good new authors during the course of the year; K.C Bateman and Cat Sebastian were two, and Virginia Heath is another. Harlequin Historical has some of the best writers of historical romance around on its roster and Ms. Heath is definitely one of their strongest recent finds.