The Devil to Pay
K.C. Bateman made an impactful entry into the historical romance genre in 2016 with To Steal a Heart, a Napoleonic Era romantic adventure featuring a former acrobat-turned-informant and a sexy spy, which I loved and rated a DIK. The other books in her Secrets and Spies trilogy were similarly enjoyable, and I’ve been eagerly waiting for a new book from her. The Devil to Pay is that book, and I pounced on it immediately, delighted to discover that the author has set her story outside of England and in a period other than the Regency. Renaissance Italy is not a setting often utilised in historical romance these days, but it’s full of potential, what with all the court and political intrigue that abounded in and between the various states; and it’s always a refreshing change to find an historical romance set outside nineteenth century England or the Scottish Highlands.
Cara di Montessori has fled her home at Castelleon following the murder of her father by his half-brother, who has now taken possession of the citadel. Wounded and near exhaustion, she has made her way to the fortified city of Torre di San Rocco, the stronghold of the one man she believes able to help her. Alessandro del Sarto is a mercenary whose skill, strength and fearsome reputation have earned him the sobriquet of Il Diavolo, and Cara has known him since she was a child; he trained with her father and fought at his side, and she offers to pay him in order to fight for Castelleon and dispatch her usurping uncle. To her surprise and frustration, however, he tells her she should give up Castelleon as a lost cause and that he isn’t interested in her money. Or not only in her money. He’s already got more than he knows what to do with, and he challenges her to come up with a better offer.
Alessandro is chafing under the weight of the duties of a castellan, and hates the intrigue and continual plotting, scheming and machinations of court life. But he’s too good a strategist not to recognise that he needs allies, and is considering forging a non-aggression pact with his neighbours in order to unite against a possible French invasion. The time-honoured way of cementing such an alliance is by marriage, but the thought of selecting a bride from the group of manipulative, marriageable, high-born ladies who will be descending on the castle in a week’s time along with the hordes of princes, minor nobility and diplomats invited for the negotiations, leaves him cold.
The reappearance in his life of Cara di Montessori is certainly likely to alleviate his boredom; he recalls the stories her father used to tell of her escapades, and knows all too well that she was always an unruly handful. He remembers her as headstrong, stubborn and never one to back down easily, and hasn’t forgotten the last time they’d seen each other; she was sixteen, he’d kissed her senseless after besting her with a sword and she’d threatened to kill him.
Cara has never forgotten that kiss – or experienced another one like it – which just adds fuel to the flames of her irritation over del Sarto’s refusal to aid her to regain Castelleon. She’s not seen him for six years, but her attraction to him hasn’t faded, no matter how much she wishes it had, and the way he can still affect her so strongly infuriates her. As does his idea that, in addition to paying him to fight for Castelleon, she should act as his chatelaine for the next two weeks, fulfilling all the duties of a wife – and he means ALL of them.
For Alessandro, it’s the ideal solution to his current problem. He’ll have a hostess during the negotiations, the opportunity to finally scratch the six-year-old itch that’s plagued him ever since that kiss, he’ll be helping the daughter of his old friend – and while he’s about it, he’ll find Cara a worthy husband so she can live a life of pampered luxury. It’s a win-win for everyone.
Or so he thinks. But of course, even the best laid plans are prone to go awry, and although Alessandro is well aware of Cara’s stubbornness, he’s not reckoned on the strength of her determination to win back her home… or his own reluctance to simply marry her off to a man he deems unworthy of her. Which is, of course, anyone who isn’t him.
The book starts very strongly and Ms. Bateman once again offers a masterclass in How to Create Smoking Hot Sexual Tension as Cara and Alessandro strike sparks off each other and trade quips, insults and witticisms that fly effortlessly back and forth. The author writes this sort of sexually charged banter incredibly well and makes it seem easy; she’s also extremely good at creating the sort of hero that makes me weak at the knees – not just physically gorgeous (and hot as fuck), but also intelligent, witty and most of all, incredibly competent; there’s nothing sexier than a man who knows what he’s doing in pretty much any given situation ;)
The book falls down somewhat when it comes to Cara, however, because her motivations and actions veer dangerously close to TSTL on occasion. While we’re told she’s tough, intelligent, well-read in things like history and military strategy, and has spent much of her life either marching with an army or running her father’s home and citadel, we don’t see much evidence to support those qualities. She knows Alessandro is the only person who is likely to be both willing and able to help her, yet her supposed cleverness tells her that running away from him is the best idea – and I just couldn’t buy it. This part of the story is somewhat repetitive, as Cara repeatedly runs, gets herself into situations she needs to be rescued from and/or is caught and taken back to the castle – rinse – repeat. The best part of these escapades are Alessandro’s reactions – he’s a big, sexy alpha who pretty much always has the upper hand, but there’s no question he cares deeply for Cara even when she’s exasperating him up to the eyeballs. He jokes that:
“…you’ve survived an assassination attempt, ridden a hundred miles without getting yourself killed, pulled a knife on me, and want your uncle’s blood in revenge. In fact, you’re probably my perfect woman.”
– but the reader knows he’s a goner, no matter how hard he tries to deny he has any tender feelings towards her whatsoever. I really appreciated the character growth he undergoes through his association with Cara; at the beginning of the story he’s world-weary and arrogant, but by the end, he’s shown himself to be a supportive, caring and respectful partner, while Cara has come to understand that Alessandro works hard to disguise the sensitive, caring man he is beneath the bravado and swagger.
I raced through The Devil to Pay in one sitting, because it was such a lot of fun to read! It’s entertaining, fast-paced and sexy, and in spite of my reservations about the heroine, I enjoyed the development of the romance and was really rooting for Cara and Alessandro to admit the truth and make it work between them. He’s undoubtedly the star of this show, and if you’re a fan of the drop-dead gorgeous hero with a smart mouth, a wicked smirk and the ability to keep his heroine on her toes, chances are you’ll find much to enjoy here.