Although The Rogue is the first in a new series by Katharine Ashe, it is also a continuation of her earlier Falcon Club series, which featured a group of former spies as they attempted to adjust to new, “normal” lives. Three of the five members of the Club are happily settled, and now it’s the turn of the single female member of the group – Lady Constance Read – to step into the limelight as she works to unmask a devious killer.
Six years earlier, Constance met and fell in love with a handsome, enigmatic young man with whom she indulged in a brief flirtation and exchanged some passionate kisses. But then real life intruded upon their romantic idyll and they never saw each other again. In the intervening period, Constance became a member of the Falcon Club, her high rank as the daughter of a duke giving her entrée to anywhere she wanted and the opportunity to gather useful information as she worked her way around the ballrooms and drawing rooms of the ton.
Even though she has now officially “retired” from the Club, Constance is still working to ferret out wrongdoing, and is now investigating the murders of two young women whose bodies were discovered on the nearby estate of the Duke of Loch Irvine which is close to her own family’s estate in Scotland. The duke is the subject of many salacious rumours which have dubbed him the “Devil’s Duke”, whispers that speak of the practice of satanic rituals and pagan sacrifices; and Constance has determined to discover the truth, expose the murderer and protect other young women against suffering the same fate. In order to do this, she must get close to the duke, and given her father’s stipulation that she must wed before her twenty-fifth birthday in a few weeks’ time, marriage to the Devil’s Duke would seem to provide her with an ideal solution to both problems.
Frederick Evan Sterling (known as Saint) is widely known to be the finest swordsman in England, and has begrudgingly travelled to Scotland with his cousin, Lord Michaels, who is in love with a young woman who resides in Edinburgh. Believing that to have been the reason for their journey north, Saint is annoyed to discover that Michaels has instead brought him to Scotland in order to repay a debt incurred years earlier – a debt which has now been called in by the Duke of Read, who wants to employ Saint to teach his ward to fence.
Needless to say, Saint is not amused, although he can see the irony of the situation in his being invited back to the house from which he was barred six years previously. When the duke explains that his daughter Constance is to be Saint’s pupil, he immediately refuses and suggests His Grace finds someone else. But the Duke of Read is a wily, clever man who won’t take no for an answer and whose motivations are unclear to say the least. I admit that I was a little skeptical at the idea that the daughter of a duke would be encouraged to learn to fence, and by her father, no less. Indeed, it seemed to me that Constance had rather too much freedom given her position, especially considering that this is a point in time when ladies were expected to do nothing other than to look lovely, embroider quietly and get pregnant. But even though I was only a few chapters into the book, the plotline and Ms Ashe’s writing had already grabbed me and it was clear from what I’d already read that Saint was going to turn out to be an extraordinary hero, so I decided to reserve judgement and see how things panned out.
As the story progresses and we learn more about Constance and her past and her relationship with her father, we do indeed discover exactly why she has been allowed to do the things she has, and it’s rather ugly and not at all what one might have expected. I don’t want to say too much – spoilers! – but the degree of freedom she has been allowed turns out to be a double-edged sword and forces her to make a lot of difficult reappraisals.
While this is very much a plot-driven tale, Ms Ashe has achieved a splendid balance between the adventure and the romance, which is never overshadowed by the central mystery. Saint and Constance never got over each other, in spite of the fact that she has been engaged in the interim, so they are both very wary around one another, circling and sizing each other up metaphorically even as they are doing the same thing physically during her fencing lessons. The mystery plot is very intriguing, but I should point out here that it is not resolved in this book – I didn’t really mind that as the central couple do get their HEA, but this is obviously a storyline that is going to run throughout all the books in the series so we’re going to have to wait for a while to find out how it ends.
The characterisation is excellent throughout, and I was pleased that my initial assessment of Saint – that he was going to be something special – was borne out. He really is a wonderful hero; gorgeous, athletic and with an aura of quiet but complete confidence that is incredibly sexy. But he’s more than that; there is a beautiful honesty about him, an ability to see his own vulnerabilities and a true nobility to his character that is just devastating. He’s a man of fairly few words, and we don’t spend a huge amount of time in his head, but the way his character is developed and revealed is a masterclass in showing and not telling; we learn who and what he is through his actions, whether it’s pushing Constance to her limits in their lessons, showing her that in order to overcome her fears she has to face them, or simply through his need to care for and about her. As an example of the latter, on her birthday he gifts her with an exquisitely crafted new bow (she is an accomplished archer) with a single white rose “twined about its string” – which is so utterly perfect a gesture in the context of the story that it made my heart hurt.
Unfortunately, however, Constance is rather more difficult to warm to, because she comes across as rather cold and manipulative. She’s a complex character, and it’s clear from the outset that she has been hurt in the past and puts up walls to avoid letting anyone get close – even (perhaps especially) Saint. I admired her courage and her determination to proceed with her investigation in spite of her fears; and in both that and her initial “unlikeability”, she reminded me a little of Leigh in Laura Kinsale’s The Prince of Midnight – a strong woman who doesn’t baulk at manipulating the hero when she feels she needs to. But on the positive side, she and Saint agree that there should be honesty between them when it comes to the investigation and the chemistry between them is electric, right from their very first meeting in the prologue when it’s immediately evident that these two people are fated to be together.
Even with those slight misgivings about the heroine, The Rogue is a compelling read and one I have no hesitation in recommending. Katharine Ashe’s writing is lyrical and almost poetic in places, the plotting is tight, the romance is sensual and beautifully developed; and Saint is easily one of the finest romantic heroes I’ve read in quite some time.
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