The Gentleman Rogue
Margaret McPhee packs a surprising emotional punch into the pages of The Gentleman Rogue, the story of a young, well-born woman whose fortunes have taken a downward turn and a self-made man who, despite his wealth is still relegated to the outskirts of the society to which the heroine once belonged.
Emma Northcote was brought up a lady but after her brother Kit staked – and lost – the family fortune in a game of chance, she and her father have been forced to move to a much less salubrious area of London and take employment in order to keep body and soul together. (How realistic it is for two ex-Mayfair residents who probably never worked a day in their lives to be able to do such a thing is something I question, but they’ve been working for some time when the book opens.)
One of the more recently arrived regulars at the Whitechapel chop house in which Emma works is a young, shabbily dressed man who exudes an aura of quiet strength and keeps himself very much to himself. Emma can’t help noticing that despite his worn trousers and jacket, his shirts are fine – and that he’s possessed of a very striking pair of blue eyes and a roguish scar through one eyebrow. He’s called Ned Stratham –and that’s all anybody knows about him.
Their interactions are limited – until one night, he saves Emma from the unwanted advances of a lascivious sailor, and shows himself to be a very dangerous man indeed when he single-handedly despatches not only the lothario himself but several of his gang.
After that, Emma and Ned strike up an acquaintance, but with a strong pull of attraction between them, it’s not long before this friendship leads to their exchanging passionate kisses each night when Ned walks Emma home to the shabby boarding house she inhabits with her father. Ms. McPhee sets up the central relationship really well in this early part of the book. Even through the prose is fairly sparse, it thoroughly conveys the intensity of the sexual attraction between Ned and Emma, and communicates that combination of nerves and wonder that accompanies the first flush of infatuation and attraction very well.
One of the things I liked immediately about the story is that Ned is as much caught up in the sudden rush of feeling as Emma is. There’s none of the desperation to avoid entanglements or attempt to conceal his feelings so often shown by heroes in historical romances – he’s found the woman for him and he can admit it to himself and is prepared to do so to her. But he’s not the man she thinks he is – he may have been born and bred in the City, but he’s worked hard to amass a fortune, owns many businesses and owns a residence in one of the most highly sought-after locations in Mayfair. Despite his almost indecent wealth, Ned is well aware that the people who are keen to know him in order to do business with him merely tolerate him and that were they not desperate to gain something from their association, they would cut him dead.
When Emma receives an offer of alternative employment as companion to the dowager Lady Lamerton, she is reluctant to take it up. She wants to obtain information as to her brother’s whereabouts and knows that her best chance of doing that is to mingle amongst her former circle – but her eagerness to return to that world has diminished since she met Ned. Yet her father’s anxiety – and her own – on Kit’s behalf are too great to ignore and she takes the position while Ned is out of town.
Ned is devastated when he discovers that Emma has left her job and that she and her father have removed from the boarding house – but as he has so often had to do before, he locks his feelings away and returns his focus to his current business deal, which he regards as the most important of his life. Marrying for love had never been his intention anyway – up until he met Emma, Ned had been angling to find himself a titled wife to smooth his way into society in order to pursue his business interests.
High Society being a relatively small group of people, it’s not long before Emma, accompanying her employer to an event, spies a well-dressed, well-built man with striking blue eyes in the company of a viscount’s daughter. But Ned isn’t the only one who has been keeping secrets – and while Emma’s is more of a sin of omission, it’s still something guaranteed to drive a wedge between them.
Yes, it’s a well-worn plot and yes, the reasons behind Ned’s actions are perhaps a little too idealistically altruistic, but what kept me reading this book was the depth of emotion on display. I can forgive much in the plotting department when an author tugs at my heartstrings, and Ms. McPhee certainly does that towards the end of the story. There are a small number of instances when the prose tends toward the purplish, usually in the moments of heightened emotions, but the principals are likeable and taken as a whole, The Gentleman Rogue is a well-written, enjoyable read.