Desert Isle Keeper
Readers of Katharine Ashe’s Falcon Club series will be well aware of the frequent, public, and bitingly sarcastic correspondence that has gone on between the club’s secretary, Peregrine, and the anonymous Lady Justice, pamphleteer, moral crusader and regular denouncer of the abuses and injustices wreaked upon the voiceless masses by the wealthy and privileged. That correspondence continued throughout The Rogue, the first in the author’s Devil’s Duke series, which inhabits the Falcon Club universe and features a number of the same characters. This is also true of The Earl, which references storylines from the earlier series, as well as one of the plotlines begun in The Rogue. That probably all sounds fairly complicated, and I would definitely say that someone new to this author’s work might not want to start here. At a pinch, The Earl could work as a standalone, but I think anyone picking it up without having read any of the earlier books would be at a disadvantage.
Right at the end of The Rogue, the unthinkable happened. Lady Justice, knowing of the Falcon Club’s skill in finding the missing and returning them home, was forced to seek help from the one man she detests above all others: Peregrine. Naturally, Peregrine is intrigued by the request and definitely not above gloating at how much it must stick in Lady Justice’s throat to have to ask him for help. He demands a face-to-face meeting with his nemesis; she refuses. He makes it clear that his help is conditional upon a meeting, and reluctantly the lady agrees, covering herself in a thick veil to prevent Peregrine discovering her identity.
Their meeting is as acrimonious as their written interactions have been, and only confirms Lady Justice’s belief that Peregrine is an arrogant, manipulative, ruthless, self-entitled bastard. Unfortunately, it also shows her something she had not expected – Peregrine is none other than Colin Gray, newly minted Earl of Egremoor, and a man she has known all her life.
Lady Emily Vane is a bit of an odd duck. Bookish and often shy in company as a child, she became a veritable chatterbox in the company of her dearest friend, a boy who could not speak, but whom she nonetheless adored, Colin Gray. Emily’s father and Colin’s were old friends and so the two children spent a great deal of time together as their respective families were happy to leave the two ‘oddities’ to their own devices. But when Colin was thirteen and Emily eight, things changed suddenly and irrevocably, and since then, they have been little more than mere nodding acquaintances. In the eighteen years since, Emily has become somewhat reclusive; the income she has earned over the years means she is independent of her father, can live alone and has no need of – or desire for – a husband. Living alone enables her to retain her anonymity and to continue to argue for reform, rail against injustice and highlight the plight of the oppressed in the pamphlets she continues to write as Lady Justice. Her current crusade is to find a way of getting the Domestic Felicity Act – a bill which will give women actual rights within marriage – introduced into Parliament.
Shocked as she is to discover Peregrine’s true identity, Emily manages to escape that encounter without being unmasked herself. She needs Colin’s help to find her sister, Amarantha, who had been living in Jamaica until the recent death of her husband. But Amarantha has disappeared, last heard of making for Scotland in search of a friend, and Emily is worried. Knowing she can’t possibly accept Colin’s help now – even if he agreed to give it – she sets off for Scotland with a couple of her servants, determined to find Amarantha herself. But Emily has not long arrived at an inn near Loch Lomond when she discovers that Colin has followed leads of his own and that his trail has led him to the same place. But before they can do more than exchange cold civilities, they find themselves in grave danger, owing to the fact that a man who bears a striking resemblance to Colin and is calling himself the Earl of Egremoor is wanted for murder and highway robbery. This man has a smaller, fair-haired accomplice who has been seen dressed as a woman – which accounts for the fact that Emily and Colin have encountered such suspicion among the locals. The animosity directed towards them very quickly reaches boiling point and the pair must act quickly if they are to escape with their lives. Colin and Emily go on the run, making for the Duke of Loch Irvine’s castle at Kallin where they hope they will be able to get everything straightened out. But it’s going to be a difficult journey through rough terrain and uncertain weather; and news of the fake earl’s deeds have already spread widely throughout the area, so seeking shelter is risky as they can’t trust anyone not to turn them in. And all the while, Emily is desperate to keep her secret from the boy who broke her heart and has become a man who stands for everything she hates.
Katharine Ashe has impressed me immensely with her ability to write a gripping adventure yarn that takes full account of historical and political detail while also developing a complex and satisfying romance between two complicated, flawed individuals. Emily can be difficult to like at times, as she is so intractable and willing to see the worst in Colin, although his high-handedness can be just as annoying as her insistence that he’s arrogant and uncaring about those less fortunate than himself. Both characters have to face some harsh truths about themselves and their shared past, although it’s Emily who really needs to have the blinkers removed. She has spent so long feeling hurt and betrayed by the one person in her life she thought knew and understood her that she has allowed her prejudices to cloud her judgement. But as they spend their days and nights running from danger, Emily gradually begins to realise that she is wrong and that Colin is a decent, honourable man who is strongly motivated to act for the good of others.
The pacing throughout is excellent, in terms of both the romance and the adventure. The romance needs time to develop given the fact that Colin and Emily have been estranged for years, and I loved the way it unfolds gradually as they both start to reassess each other. We glimpse them as children and discover exactly what had bound them so strongly together; we experience Emily’s heartbreak, Colin’s shame and frustration; we feel for them as they reconnect and come to know each other as they are now, and when, towards the end, Emily finally reveals exactly what inspired her to become Lady Justice… I was choked up. It’s a masterstroke.
The chemistry between Peregrine and Lady Justice leapt off the page in the other books, and it burns even hotter between Colin and Emily in this one. Emily is refreshingly un-missish about the fact that she finds Colin extremely attractive and the love scenes are possibly the most romantic, sexy and intense that Katharine Ashe has yet written.
The Earl is an enormously satisfying read on many levels. An exciting adventure and a sizzling romance all wrapped up in astute observation and social comment, this is historical romance at its best and it’s gone straight on to my keeper shelf.