Desert Isle Keeper
The Rake's Retreat
I generally think of a comfort read as something I’ve already read, but because I try to choose my TBR Challenge reads from books I haven’t read, I decided to go for one by an author whose work I’ve enjoyed and want to read more of. Nancy Butler’s The Rake’s Retreat got my 2021 TBR Challenge off to a great start; it makes excellent use of the trope of the-rake-who-falls-hard-for-a -spinster-ish-heroine, and it contains some of the best verbal sparring I’ve ever come across. The romance is wonderful; the chemistry between the leads is off the charts and their relationship is superbly written, with lots of insight, tenderness and mutual understanding on display amid the banter and the delicious sexual tension.
The Rake’s Retreat opens when seventeen-year-old travelling player Lovelace Wellesley, leading lady of Wellesley’s Wandering Minstrels, witnesses a murder in the Kentish countryside. Unfortunately for her, the murderer sees her, and she flees in fear of her life – but in the way of all heroines-in-peril – she falls and turns her ankle. Fortunately for her, she is rescued by the local landowner, Beecham Bryce, who is obviously sceptical of her story of murder, but who decides to accompany her to the (supposed) scene of the crime so that, if nothing else, he can convince her that she is in no danger.
Lady Jemima Vale is visiting Kent with her brother Lord Troy, London’s premier playwright, and is spending the afternoon sketching while she waits for him to return to the inn at which they are staying. Her solitude is interrupted when she is approached by a starkly attractive gentleman who asks if she’s seen anyone in the woods. Oddly unsettled by the stranger, whose easy grace, aura of danger and sudden, surprisingly engaging smile do odd things to her knees, Jemima replies that she has not seen anyone – and he explains that his young companion claims to have witnessed a murder in the woods just half an hour before. He looks around for a while and finds nothing – but when Jemima gets to her feet shortly afterwards, he notices the blood-stains on her dress and realises she must have been sitting in the very spot the murder took place. Lovelace may well be in danger after all, and Jemima is all for going back to the inn and returning her to her family – but the Minstrels have departed, mistakenly believing Lovelace to have been asleep in one of their carts. Bryce suggests she should stay at his home while he arranges for someone to find her parents, but Jemima is horrified at the suggestion; leave a lovely young woman alone with a notorious rake? Unthinkable! Bryce – who has taken quite a shine to the tall, long-limbed brunette who challenges him at every turn and responds to his flirtatious teasing with a haughtily raised brow and a sharp retort – sees his chance, and suggests that Jemima should avail herself of his hospitality as well… to act as chaperone to Lovelace of course.
Over the next few days, Bryce and Jemima find themselves spending a lot of time together, sometimes in easy companionship, sometimes shooting verbal arrows at each other, both of them clearly having the other’s measure, both of them at something of a crossroads in life. Jemima is firmly on the shelf and approaching her thirtieth birthday; she is starting to take stock of her life – most of which she has spent at her brother’s beck and call – and realising that she’s missed out on having a life of her own. The artistic and literary salons she hosts in London may have provided intellectual stimulation, but she has neglected her emotional life and longs for something different. Bryce is a swoon worthy hero; witty, sexy and insightful, he’s a man of intelligence and compassion hiding behind a mask of ennui and innuendo, and has returned to the family home in Kent in order to take care of it while his father – with whom he doesn’t get on – is on a six-month long visit to warmer climes for his health. Bryce is a womaniser and a libertine and makes no apologies for it, but he’s also quick to see and understand Jemima’s frustrations and to encourage her to step out from her brother’s shadow. He sees Jemima for who she truly is, and he falls hard, although he does end up torn between wanting her and wanting what (he thinks) is best for her, which means his behaviour is sometimes a little hurtful as he tries to push her away ‘for her own good.’
But there is never any doubt in the reader’s mind that they’re perfect for one another. The author shows over and over again, through their words and actions, through the sparkling dialogue and verbal sparring, that they’re a match in wit and intellect, and that they belong together.
The mystery is interesting, although it’s fairly easy to guess where it’s going, but it’s nicely done all the same; and Lovelace makes for an engaging secondary character who, while she starts off being rather self-obsessed and a bit whiny, exhibits substantial character growth throughout the story. There’s another character who provides considerable insight into Bryce’s character, showing him to be a deeply caring, loving person (and who has an important part to play in the story) but I can’t reveal more without spoilers.
When AAR reviewed this title back in 1999, it was awarded DIK status, and I’d say it’s worn pretty well and still deserves that grade (A-). It’s not a straight A because I wasn’t wild about the way Jemima so easily distrusted Bryce towards the end, and some behaviour that veered a bit too close to TSTL territory – but those are minor irritants when set against all the things this book does so incredibly well, which is pretty much everything else.
The Rake’s Retreat is a fabulous, witty and charming romance that has definitely stood the test of time. I highly recommend it.