So I’m in this thrift shop, looking at the shelves of dilapidated, abandoned paperbacks, their pages yellow and acid-brittle, reading the titles on the spines with numbed curiosity – so many books, so many stories, so many of them forgotten and forgettable – when I see the name “Laura London.” My eyes widen: I know this name, this pseudonym; I’ve read Sharon and Tom Curtis before. I pull the book out, read the title, wondering, Is the woman of the title the bad daughter of a baron, or the daughter of a bad baron? I pay my quarter, take the book home, and as I read the story of poor Katie Kendricks and the bad, bad boy who saves her (and she him), I remember why I fell in love with Regency Romances all those years ago, and offer a small sigh of regret that they truly don’t make ’em like this anymore.
Katie Kendricks has come to London to look for her father, Baron Kendricks, a charming ne’er-do-well who has a bad habit of disappearing. Katie should be used to his disappearing act, but he’s been gone too long this time, and she’s worried. The only place Katie knows to go is to the gin mill owned by Zack, her father’s former mistress’s son, deep in the heart of a slum. Disguised as a boy (for minimal protection), she’s working in the bar of the Merry Maidenhead when a customer accosts her. She’s saved by the intervention of Lord Linden, a bored rake bent on a night of slumming. Linden saves her yet again when the same customer, known in the neighborhood as a thug-for-hire, makes a clumsy attempt on Katie’s life.
A realist, Zack is convinced that the best Katie can do in the world is to find a rich and powerful man to take her out of the slums and protect her, so he sells her to Linden for fifty pounds. Knowing Katie will never agree to such a scheme, he lies to Katie about it, delivering his friend in a drugged state on Linden’s doorstep. Linden heeds – with great reluctance and no little frustration – an echo in his conscience, denying himself the pleasure of her feminine charms. He takes Katie to stay with his sometime mistress Laurel, while he figures out why someone is trying to harm her.
Thank God The Bad Baron’s Daughter appeared in 1978, because the Curtises could not sell this book to a publisher today. There’s too much that’s “wrong” with it: a charming and truly naïve heroine, a hero with real, deep flaws, a sexual liaison between the hero and another woman, a tone and edge to the writing that almost nobody can carry off and, it seems, no one is even trying to evoke these days. While the setting may be familiar, what the Curtises do with it is remarkable. In their hands, the Regency London of slums and salons is vibrant, accessible down to the least detail. You really do feel as if you’re there with the characters.
As for those characters, the most remarkable by far is Linden. He’s not some watered-down version of a bored, dissipated nobleman who wastes his time at White’s and has a girl on the side but who’s basically a good sort of fellow; he is the genuine article, a fully realized character with real flaws and facets. Linden is a dark hero with demons screaming after him, yet there’s a part of him crying for salvation. He’s got a sharp tongue, a quick mind, and an even quicker temper. His mistress shrinks from him, remembering that the last time she ticked him off he backhanded her so hard she couldn’t leave the house for a couple of weeks. Can’t show that these days – such behavior is labeled unheroic, never mind that it illuminates character and demonstrates what his starting-off point is. Never mind that we see him struggling to rein in his temper with Katie, in a way he’s never bothered to do before, because of the effect she has on him.
When Linden’s being a jerk he knows it, but he doesn’t care that he’s hurting the people around him – until Katie comes along, and something in her reaches out to the good still left in him and nurtures it, until he just can’t help but do the right thing, no matter how much he may struggle against it. His declaration of love at the end of the book comes from his gut, and you can feel it just being wrenched from him. He’s among the cream of the crop of bad-boy-goes-good: think Georgette Heyer meets Anne Stuart, Damerel from Venetia and Killoran from To Love A Dark Lord rolled into one.
As for Katie, air-headed heroines usually exasperate me, but she’s genuinely charming, and her naïveté amused me, rather than grated on my nerves. There’s a grain of worldliness to her – but only a grain, mind you! – that saves her from being TSTL. She may be clueless but she’s not stupid, and it’s heartbreaking to see her reaction when she realizes that those closest to her have betrayed her trust in them. Katie finds a worthy companion in Suzanne, Linden’s cousin, who is the first to notice the pull that Katie unconsciously exerts on him. Linden’s grandmother is one of those crusty old dames who’s not as straitlaced as she first seems. Other secondary characters are just as real, even if some of them are no more than thumbnail sketches, but a thumbnail sketch done by a master is often a more fully realized portrait than a complete work by a lesser artist. We see the Bad Baron in only one scene, yet we know everything there is to know about him, good, bad, and indifferent, thanks to the Curtises’ skill in characterization.
Have I mentioned how funny the book is? There are all sorts of humorous moments, many of them based on Katie’s ingenuous observations and the reactions of those around her. The mistress, Laurel, has a mirror above her bed, and Katie in all innocence accepts the explanation that it’s so Laurel can put on her face powder without getting out of bed. Suzanne remarks that it’s not possible for Linden to love women, but Katie replies, "[H]e loves women all the time, in fact, Laurel told me that he can love. . ." but before she can finish the statement, Suzanne, seeing where the conversation is going, steers it in another direction. The authors also have the knack of filling an ostensibly sex-free book with lots of sex, by the liberal use of innuendo, pun, and double entendre, most of which are occasions for more humor.
I wish Sharon and Tom Curtis were still writing. I wish they’d complete and sell the sequel to The Windflower. I wish other writers had the same kind of dangerous, biting edge that I find hardly anywhere else these days. Unless and until they do publish again, I’ll have to content myself with perusing the rows and shelves of used-bookstores, thrift shops, and yard sales, trying to build my collection of their backlist, trying to catch the magic that happens when this pair of gifted writers weaves an unforgettable story of the redeeming, healing power of love.
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