The Lady Hellion
This is the final book in Ms Shupe’s Wicked Deceptions trilogy in which the stories are linked by the three male protagonists, who are long-term friends. I enjoyed the first book (The Courtesan Duchess) and felt Ms Shupe was an author to watch. She writes well, her characters are strongly drawn and she can certainly turn up the heat when called for.
Yet I was a little reluctant to pick up this book, despite having enjoyed meeting its hero, Damien Beecham, Viscount Quint, in the previous stories. My lack of enthusiasm was entirely due to the fact that the eponymous Lady Hellion spends a lot of time running about dressed as a man in order to pursue the investigations she undertakes – and “chicks-in-strides” is my least favourite trope in the entire canon of historical romance.
But I was keen to reacquaint myself with Quint, so I decided to suspend my disbelief and read The Lady Hellion anyway – and it turned out to be an okay read, if not an especially deep one. The story picks up shortly after the previous book leaves off; and we learn that Quint, who was shot trying to help Lady Maggie Hawkins escape the clutches of a murderous blackmailer, is seriously ill.
Lady Sophie Barnes, daughter of the Marquess of Ardington, is vibrant, beautiful, unmarried and intends to remain so. Now aged twenty-eight, Sophie believes that a youthful indiscretion has rendered her unfit for marriage, a circumstance which led to her rejecting the one suitor (Quint) she truly cared for some years earlier. In any case, she doesn’t want to surrender her independence or the purpose she has found in undertaking investigations on behalf of those who are too poor and insignificant to be able to seek justice for themselves – most of whom are female servants or prostitutes.
Her investigations often take her into many of the less respectable parts of London, so Sophie, who is tall and lithe and who wears her hair short, disguises herself as a young man. The author attempts to make it seem plausible that she manages to get away with it by mentioning that she disguises herself only at night (because the light is poorer) and saying that Sophie has to alter the pitch of her voice – but as anyone who listens to audiobooks as often as I do will know, there is only so far even the most highly skilled vocal actress can go in making herself sound like a man. And I just couldn’t buy the ease with which the daughter of a marquess is able to sneak in and out of her home at all hours of the day and night. As I said, the whole girl-in-breeches thing rarely works for me – so instead, I focused my attentions on Viscount Quint, who is a charming, rumpled, sexy geek of a hero, and definitely the best thing about the book.
Following his recovery from a serious fever, Quint has become something of a recluse, finding himself unable to put a foot outside his home without turning into a quivering wreck. As a boy, he watched his father succumb to madness, and now, given the terrible fits he has begun to experience, Quint believes himself to be travelling the same path. He reminded me rather of Dorian Camoys, the hero of Loretta Chase’s The Mad Earl’s Bride in that respect; it’s easy for the reader to figure out what’s wrong with him given our twenty-first century viewpoint, but all Damien knows is that he is subject to debilitating episodes and fears the worst.
Having seen his father’s condition destroy his mother, Quint knows that marriage is out of the question, no matter how much he still longs for Sophie. When he learns of her secret double life and the reasons for it, he is horrified – not because of a sense of outraged propriety, but because he fears for her safety – fears which are borne out when she is set upon one night and almost killed. Unable to accompany her, and knowing she won’t listen to his pleas for her to stop, Quint instead agrees to help her by working behind the scenes and makes her promise to keep him fully informed and not to act without his consent.
This is an odd set up – a heroine who can’t (or won’t) stop putting herself into danger from which the hero is physically unable to extract her because he can’t leave his house. Sophie, is, of course, convinced that she will be able to “fix” Quint, an attitude I found incredibly patronising seeing as she has no idea that what he’s really suffering from are severe panic attacks – and he’s convinced he’s going round the bend, so before the sexytimes commence, he makes it clear he isn’t planning to marry her. It’s true that Quint is supposed to be eccentric and unconventional, but I found it difficult to believe he would be THAT unconventional. He’s a gentleman, and to have sex with a well-bred young woman and have no intention of marrying her (for whatever reason) just doesn’t ring true. Mind you, Ms Shupe gets some brownie points for writing a hero who uses contraception other than the withdrawal method! And while I’m on the subject, the sex scenes are written in a way rather unusual for the genre; instead of the usual euphemisms, when we’re in Quint’s PoV, we get correct anatomical terms which, while perhaps intended to indicate Quint’s erudition, are not very sensual or romantic.
There’s a subplot about Quint’s work for the government as a code-breaker which doesn’t add much to the overall story (and is another instance of the author over-egging the pudding, as I found with The Courtesan Duchess), and I did get rather tired of Sophie’s refusal to acknowledge the danger to which she repeatedly subjects herself. Quint is a one of my favourite kinds of hero – the beta with a take-charge streak – but he’s wasted here. There’s a fair amount of chemistry between the couple, but ultimately, the story wasn’t strong enough for me to be able to forget my dislike of the cross-dressing trope, and Sophie strayed too close to TSTL for my taste. I plan to read more by Ms Shupe, but The Lady Hellion, in spite of its being well-written, was a bit of a disappointment.