The Earl and the Reluctant Lady
Robin DeHarte continues her Lords of Vice series with The Earl and the Reluctant Lady, about a wallflower and the rake she wishes to reform.
Agnes Watkins is three balls into her latest Season, and it looks to be as unpromising as the one that came before it. Her mother, the youthful Lady Darby, is a beautiful, man-glomming, flirty swan who knows how to work a party, and Agnes feels miniaturized in her wake, having no idea how to speak to the equally-flirtatious men who try to court her. Considered a near-spinster at this point, Agnes is ready to give up the hunt and embrace the label; in fact she plans on spending the season single and free, rejecting the social niceties she’s required to pay to men she cannot stand. Little does she know that a handsome man is watching her from across the room with more than a little bit of interest.
Indeed, Fletcher Banks, The Earl of Wakefield, has been attracted to Agnes since he saw her enter the room at her mother’s side. He too has an embarrassing relative – his grandfather and Parliamentary tyrant, the Duke of Harcourt – and he also knows what it’s like to have people think ill of him because of the Duke’s behavior. Fletcher knows he ought not to let himself be distracted by Agnes at all, and sharing a flirtatious dance and a single kiss, the twosome are pried apart. Agnes finds herself approached by Lady Sommersby, an older woman and doyenne of society, who offers her entrée into the Ladies of Virtue, a charitable organization that funds orphanages, runs self-defense courses, and hides a whole lot more under its respectable hood.
After taking the blame for a mission-gone-badly-wrong, Fletcher’s membership of the elite spy organization called the Seven is on thin ice. On a kind of probation while he proves himself, he has been assigned to keep watch over several figures at the ball. At a distance. A material distance. This is a huge comedown from his old job seducing information out of targets.
Three years later, times have changed. Agnes has formed – with members of the Ladies of Virtue as well as her best friends Harriet and Iris – a sort of crime-stopping team that beats back petty activities on the streets of London and in ballrooms across England. With the team exposed in a broadsheet, Agnes has dialed back her activities – which means stopping jewel thieves in their tracks. Fletcher, meanwhile, hasn’t changed at all – he’s now known as the Don Juan of London. Pressed by her sisterhood into confronting Fletcher about the outrageous seductions he’s undertaken since they parted company, their chemistry remains intact, but Fletcher thinks she deserves better than him, and Agnes remains embittered about the past. When Agnes receives a threatening letter from the mysterious Lady X about her crime-fighting activities, her brother Christopher (who happens to be in charge of handing out assignments within the Seven, and who thinks Fletcher is a cad) reluctantly assigns Fletcher to watch over her for two weeks while he leaves London to track down the source of the letter. If Fletcher can keep his hands off of Agnes, he will receive a plumb assignment. If he can’t – well, then Chris will ruin his career.
The Earl and the Reluctant Lady left me with mixed feelings. On one hand I adored the chemistry between Fletcher and Agnes, who are perfectly well-suited to one another, and Fletcher’s slow-motion climb toward being a respectable rake and reining in his roguishness was a lot of fun to read. They both have a lot of family issues to climb around, and I liked the way the book accomplishes that, along with the suspense surrounding Agnes’ mysterious letter writer.
On the other hand, I had a real problem with how shy wallflower Agnes – who starts the book barely able to speak to a man – so easily fits herself into the world of crime-fighting offered by the Ladies of Virtue. Ten pages before meeting Lady Sommersby, Agnes had been near to tears at the idea of flirting with a man! It doesn’t help that the author chooses to time-skip over her character development, landing us back with her three years later when she’s a confident foot soldier for the group. It cuts a crucial part of her character development out of the book and leaves out a stepping stone where she might believably have become the kind of woman who invents a fan that contains hidden blades. Also, the reforming-the-rake part of the plot sounds rather silly and is awfully busybodyish of the women involved; since they need to keep their reputations spotless and gossip-free to do their work, why would they encourage the angry comment of men high in society?
And yes, the book dares to have one of those third act misunderstandings where the heroine thinks she’s caught the hero cheating on her which forces her into the presence of the villain who kidnaps her. And while I’ll admit that the author comes up with a rather unusual way of enabling Agnes to escape, I can’t say I found it particularly palatable – and some may even find it rather distressing. Apart from that, though,The Earl and the Reluctant Lady is sadly unoriginal.