Desert Isle Keeper
The Soldier's Scoundrel
Cat Sebastian’s début historical romance, The Soldier’s Scoundrel is a thoroughly enjoyable, extremely accomplished piece of work that sees a prickly former-thief-turned-investigator working with the son of an earl to establish the identity of a blackmailer and falling in love along the way. This is no light-hearted romp, however; during the course of the story, the author explores the realities of the class differences lying between the two men and takes a look at the inequalities inherent in a justice system which really only operated in favour of the wealthy and influential.
Former valet, former thief and former perpetrator of various other illegal activities, Jack Turner now runs his own business working as an investigator and righter of wrongs for those in society – the poor and women – who have little or no recourse to justice via normal means. His life on the wrong side of the law and then as a servant has only served to reinforce his own opinions about the ‘nobs’, the gentlemen of the nobility who largely regard themselves as untouchable and if his work gives him the opportunity to even the score a little, then he regards it as a job well done.
So Jack isn’t best pleased when Mr Oliver Rivington – second son of the Earl of Rutland – bursts into his office one day, demands to know why his sister recently paid Jack a large sum of money, and refuses to leave until he gets an answer. Realising he can’t get rid of the man without causing a scene, Jack allots Rivington a seat in a dark corner while he interviews his latest client, a young, married lady who is being blackmailed over a series of letters exchanged with a former beau.
A serious leg wound after a decade in the army has led the former Captain Rivington to sell his commission and he has returned home eager to embark upon a life of quiet predictability, free from the chaos and frequent lawlessless of the army. His experiences with the sort of riot and mayhem wreaked by a victorious force following a battle have made him determined to uphold the law and respect due process, so the idea that Jack Turner could have employed less than legal means in order to help Charlotte sits badly with him, no matter that whatever Jack actually did has kept her drunken, abusive husband away overseas for the last two years.
Both men are rather surprised to recognise the sudden sexual attraction that crackles between them, and both ruthlessly tamp it down. Jack doesn’t want anything to do with aristrocrats, no matter how pretty they are, and Oliver is most certainly not going to become embroiled with a criminal. Realising that Jack is probably going to resort to law-breaking in order to help Mrs. Wraxhall, Oliver is determined to find a way of getting the lady’s letters back without using illegal means to do so, and begins making inquiries of his own.
When it seems that a journey to Mrs. Wraxhall’s former home in Yorkshire will be needed to dig up more information on the lady’s past, Jack very reluctantly agrees to accept Oliver’s help. After all, a prettily behaved, good-looking gentleman like him will be able to open doors that are closed to Jack, and Oliver will probably be able to charm people into revealing confidences that Jack’s gruffness would be unlikely to encourage. And while his intense fascination with Rivington irritates him, the attraction is obviously mutual and also impossible to ignore, so Jack decides that he might as well indulge himself while he can. It’s not something he does very often; he doesn’t do emotional entanglements and the only people in his life he trusts are his brother and sister, but he’s certainly not averse to taking Oliver to bed.
Oliver is similarly captivated by Jack – a man he is coming to know as having his own code of honour that he lives by, no matter how strongly he might deny it. Oliver recognises that Jack’s gruffness is his way of keeping people at arms’ length and he very much wants to break through that barrier and show Jack that he’s worth caring about.
Cat Sebastian has crafted a very well-balanced tale in which the relationship between the protagonists takes centre stage, while also offering an intriguing sub-plot about the blackmail investigation. As I said at the outset, she takes a look at the inequality in a justice system that permitted the upper classes to – sometimes literally – get away with murder while it would hang a starving man for stealing a crust. And worse, a system that would turn a blind eye to a woman trapped in an abusive marriage or a woman being threatened in the vilest terms. But there is no heavy-handed sermonising or info-dumping; her observations are seamlessly incorporated into the plot, adding richness and colour to an already readable and entertaining story.
But there’s no question that Jack and Oliver’s romance is at the heart of this book, and it’s by turns funny, tender, sexy, and wonderfully romantic. The two men complement each other in terms of their personalities and outlook; Jack is all rough edges, where Oliver is polished politeness and charm; Jack is outspoken where Oliver is more considered – and they make a terrific couple. I particularly liked their playfulness with each other, and the sense that, in spite of the class difference, they are equals in the relationship. I’ve not read m/m romance very widely, but in some I’ve read there is one experienced character and one who is less so or perhaps somewhat uncomfortable with his sexuality. It’s refreshing to see that isn’t the case here, and I really liked how, despite his blushes, Oliver is shown to be every bit as comfortable with himself and his preferences as Jack – and, when called for, just as naughty ;) Even though they hide things from each other to start with, once they get to know and accept one another, there’s a lovely honesty to their relationship, a true caring that goes deeper than lust or attraction, and Ms. Sebastian has done a superb job in conveying that depth through their words and actions.
The Soldier’s Scoundrel captivated me from start to finish and is most definitely going on to my keeper shelf. The central romance is wonderfully portrayed, the characterisation is excellent and I loved Oliver and Jack to bits. I can’t wait for more from Ms. Sebastian and am eagerly awaiting her next book – about Jack’s flamboyant brother, Georgie – next year.