The Scoundrel's Daughter
In Anne Gracie’s The Scoundrel’s Daughter, Alice Paten was left with debts after her husband, Lord Charlton, died. He lavished his money on his mistress. But Alice has made economies, and at the age of thirty-eight, she’s finally able to relax a little. And then a man shows up, saying he’ll publish her husband’s scandalous letters to his mistress unless Alice sponsors that man’s daughter for the Season.
Some books show immediately that they’re not wallpaper historicals or populated with characters from the twenty-first century, and this is one of them. Alice is in no position to say, “Publish and be damned!” since the letters refer to how unsatisfying she was in the marriage bed, so she takes the man’s demand seriously. He tosses her a wad of cash for his daughter’s wardrobe, but he has one requirement – his grandson must inherit a title some day. And the daughter, Lucy Bamber, is either silently sullen or outrageous in her impertinence.
What I liked most about Alice was her calm, mature approach to the situation. She realizes that Lucy is also a victim of Mr. Bamber’s schemes and has never experienced any security, let alone acceptance. The two of them develop a warm, protective friendship, and introducing Lucy into society also becomes a way for Alice to re-emerge after the nightmare of her marriage.
But Alice’s nephew Gerald, at a loose end now that he’s left the army, previously crossed Lucy’s path when she was working as a maidservant. Recognizing her, he plans to find out what’s going on, while Lucy is deliberately cheeky to keep him at arm’s length. Their interactions always end up with Lucy getting under Gerald’s skin, until Alice cleverly persuades him to find eligible men for Lucy (such men always turn out to be disappointing, somehow).
Then Gerald discovers the blackmail and confides in another former officer, James Tarrant, hoping that between the two of them, they can put a stop to it. James’ wife died years ago, leaving their three young daughters in his care, and he’s not about to let innocents be harmed if he can help it. Especially after he falls for Alice.
I was pleased to see Alice also getting a loving relationship, but here’s where the book goes downhill. The moment James sees Alice, he thinks how gorgeous she is and imagines kissing her. But although he flirts with her, she makes it clear that she’s not interested in marrying again. So he tells her he needs a friend to help him with his three girls. Alice always longed for children, though she’s obviously barren since she never conceived during her marriage.
You can tell where this is going. When James sheds the pretense and calls her “love”, Alice tells him this isn’t appropriate and her mind is made up. He insists on pressing the matter.
“I’m sorry. I take you very seriously. It’s just—” He made a helpless gesture. “I don’t want to hear this nonsense.”
A woman finally making her own decisions about her life. Yes, that’s nonsense all right.
Alice was his; she just didn’t know it yet.
Good thing Alice has a man to guide her towards enlightenment. James’s manipulation, along with his I-know-what’s-best-for-you paternalism, was all the more infuriating to read because it’s clear that Alice was abused during her marriage. I wanted her to find someone who respected her choices. Instead, she has all the hurt and disillusionment of a woman who discovers a man is just using friendship (and his children) as a cover for what he really wants.
On top of that, there’s the usual baby-logue where the evil dead husband is revealed as the infertile one. I hoped this book would buck the trend and show that a woman can be happy even without having a biological child. Naturally, this wasn’t the case, and from now on I will DNF any romance where the heroine considers herself barren, because I’ve lost hope that authors will do anything differently. The resolution of the blackmail threat is also disappointing. And it’s never made clear why Bamber is so fixated on having a titled grandson that he takes the risk of committing blackmail.
Still, while The Scoundrel’s Daughter wasn’t an exceptional read, it was often enjoyable. Anne Gracie’s writing is brisk and assured, there’s plenty of humor, and both Alice and Lucy are perfectly drawn characters who come to life in the story. So despite the problems mentioned above, it earns a qualified recommendation, and I’d be happy to try something else by this author.