The Devil to Pay
Okay, unquestionably, the “heroine as thief” thing has been done before. Ditto the guilt-ridden nobleman determined to drown his troubles in sex and alcohol. But, despite their undeniable familiarity, these tried-and-true characters spring to new and entertaining life in The Devil to Pay, the newest release from an author I believe is one of the most talented writing historical romance today.
Much has already been written about Ms. Carlyle’s wonderful dialogue, but I think perhaps she takes her already formidable skills to new levels in The Devil to Pay. Troubled they may be, complicated they may be, but heroine Sidonie Saint-Godard and Aleric, Marquis of Devellyn, are, despite all the darker aspects to their characters, smart, funny, people who know – boy, do they know – how to keep that conversational ball rolling with a host of well-timed zingers.
Sidonie is one of those “experienced” heroines who really is. The illegitimate daughter of a nobleman and a former governess who, after becoming pregnant, made her way in the world in the only way available to a “fallen” woman in those days, Sidonie married far too young and far too impulsively. Disillusioned by her husband’s betrayal and now widowed, the sadder but wiser Sidonie makes her living in London teaching the social graces to a variety of young women.
But Sidonie (sister of familiar Carlyle character George Kemble) doesn’t content herself with just a day job. By night, Sidonie is the “Black Angel”, a beautiful thief who humiliates and robs her nobleman victims. What those victims don’t know, however, is that Sidonie’s targets are far from random – she sets her sights on her prey only after they betray or harm a woman. She then uses the proceeds she fences through a connection of her brother’s to aid the noble’s victims. Impregnate a maid and leave her high and dry? A visit from the “Black Angel” just might be in your future.
One such man Sidonie believes more than deserving of her attentions is the fiend who owns the home across the square from her own. After watching a string of women come and go, Sidonie concludes that the serial womanizer seduces a woman, installs her in the cozy home, then ruthlessly evicts her when he’s had his fill. The despicable homeowner, as Sidonie later learns, is none other than the “Devil of Duke Street”, Aleric, Marquis of Devellyn.
Of course, there are two sides to every story, and, wastrel though he may be, the truth is that most of those women actually leave him. Nevertheless, Aleric finds himself grateful that his last mistress abruptly left the tidy home since his own Mayfair mansion is currently infested with termites and in need of major repair. Where better to stay during the renovations than in the now vacant home he already owns? With that, the stage is set for the often funny, often passionate, and always entertaining collision of Sidonie and Aleric and the”Black Angel” and her next hapless victim.
Ms. Carlyle is never one to broad-brush her characterizations and both those of Aleric and Sidone are proof of her commitment to keeping it “real”. Considering both her experiences and those of her mother, Sidonie is understandably wary of love and equally understandably eager to seek vengeance on the wastrels of the world – of which Aleric is a prime example. Frankly, when we first meet our hero, he is without doubt a pretty darn worthless and shallow individual. (Really.) But, of course, there are many layers below that good-time-guy surface and Ms. Carlyle does a masterful job of revealing them.
So, with all that I loved about this book, why isn’t The Devil to Pay a DIK? I know, I know, there may not have been a realistic way out of it, but there does come a time when Aleric does, indeed, turn on Sidonie. Maybe it’s just me, but I find I just can’t bear anymore anything that reminds me of those books of old in which the hero is a cold and unforgiving a-hole for a good chunk of the book. I just don’t want to go there anymore and, with Aleric hardly a spotlessly clean kind of guy, I’d have expected . . . well, a bit more flexibility. He comes round, mind you, but I would have been a far happier reader if he’d reacted a bit less angrily and with a bit more understanding in the first place.
Still, my quibble is a small one and, thankfully, one that is all over and done with in a matter of pages. And, frankly, with so very much to like here, my small issue with Aleric’s behavior ultimately takes very little away from what is undeniably yet another excellent effort by a consistently excellent author. Okay, so some of the plot elements are, admittedly, a bit familiar. Nevertheless, however formulaic those plot elements may be, Ms. Carlyle’s take on them is intelligent, funny, and decidedly refreshing.