I’ve yet to be disappointed by Karen Robards, whether it be her modern-day romantic suspense or historical high-romance, because she creates engaging and lively books featuring fascinating heroes and heroines. Tiger’s Eye, an historical romance set in England at some time in the 1800s, kept me riveted to each page and featured what have become two of my favorite characters of hers – Lady Isabella St Just, Countess of Blakely, and self-professed gutter rat Alec Tyron, King of London’s thieves and the “tiger” of the book’s title.
Lady Isabella, the second wife of handsome but cold Bernard St Just, is travelling down from Norfolk where she has spent most of her marriage rusticating at the command of her neglectful husband. Suspiciously, he has specified that she make the journey in one day, necessitating a dangerous night journey. Almost inevitably, their coach is set upon by villains who whisk Isabella off to a remote farm location and hold her to ransom to her wealthy father, seeing as how Bernard has gambled away her dowry and wouldn’t be able to come up with the necessary blunt. Immediately Isabella is completely thrown by the strange environment in which she finds herself, locked away blindfolded in a dingy room for days on end.
When she suspects that her abductors have received their payment and mean to do away with her, she takes a chance opportunity to escape. However, she finds herself in an even more unsettling predicament when a separate band of men appear from out of nowhere to grab her. Violence ensues between the two rival groups of men, and Isabella and the leader of her new captors are hurt by gunfire to varying degrees. When Isabella comes to, she imagines that these men are just as intent on doing away with her, but this time her attempts to escape are foiled. She finds herself stashed away in the private rooms of a brothel known as The Carousel, where Pearl, the gorgeous female madam is fawning over Alec Tyron, irritably recuperating in the next room guarded by right hand man, Paddy, a gentle giant who has been his master’s loyal friend since they grew up in appalling conditions in the slums of London.
Alec is anxious to resume his shady throne, despite the fact that the men who originally kidnapped Isabella are still at large and trying to do away with him. Stuck as he is in Pearl’s luxurious quarters, he focuses his attention on his kidnappee, the unprepossessing Isabella, who may not be the blowsy beauty that Pearl is, but is a lady down to her fingertips. Something about her purity and lack of hardness enchants Alec, and slowly her outward ice melts towards the handsome and charming Alec as he teases her about her status and draws her out of herself. He also rightly convinces Isabella that someone meant to kill her and that she and he are in much the same position. He resolves to keep her safe until they can uncover the truth.
As the story progresses we learn that Isabella is the eldest daughter from her father’s first marriage and after his second wife took a dislike to her, she was quickly married off to her father’s close friend, the unlikable Bernard. Isabella has never really lived in a warm, loving environment, or had anyone close to her who cared for her, beyond a loyal governess. Alec too has led a rough life, and is unflinchingly honest with Isabella about his background; he was abandoned by parents he doesn’t remember and to survive became a thief. Having clawed his way up to the top of London’s underworld, he is determined to have his revenge on both his and Isabella’s would be killers. However, as honest as he is about his background, he also lays his inner insecurities out to Isabella. Having cast off his Cockney accent, he is anxious to learn more about being a gentleman.
When their assailants discover their hiding place, Alec sends her off to his country estate. Isabella acquiesces – but only as a paid tutor, even though she has nowhere else to go that is safe. If she returns to her father he will send her back to her husband, who has been seen dressing in mourning clothes and telling everyone his wife is dead. Alec’s tuition is quickly revealed as the sham Alec intended as their mutual chemistry becomes more and more apparent.
The central attraction this novel had for me was the magnetically charming and vulnerable Alec. As plainly honest as he is a criminal, he makes his attraction to Lady Isabella clear, and I found the way he became smitten with her utterly divine. Completely without pretension yet most certainly with foibles, he refuses to allow the social divide to come between his and Isabella’s happiness together. There could not be a greater contrast between him and Bernard, whose noble blood doesn’t necessarily equate with any integrity at all. Isabella herself is also an interesting character. For all her plainness, she has a profound effect on Alec, who is besotted by her innocence and integrity, which nevertheless doesn’t stop her from enjoying herself with the only person in her life to ever treat her with any consequence. Alec could be her exact opposite in looks. If he were a bird, he would be a peacock – not that he is vain, just that he is an exotic character, very masculine, totally at ease with himself, and so attractive for all that he is a fictional creation.
That said, the constant attempts to do away with both Isabella and Alec grew tiresome and got in the way of their burgeoning relationship. It also begs the question of how many serious injuries one man can withstand before gaining Terminator status. And numerous unresolved issues hang over their relationship until the last several chapters of the book, including Pearl’s unresolved relationship with the handsome Alec, Isabella’s inconvenient husband (I spent much of the novel wondering if it would be ruined by a facile, quick dispensing with Bernard – in my opinion it wasn’t), and whether or not it was really adultery given that Bernard was so vicious and Alec was so obviously the man of her heart. I guess even the highest of high romance has to make allowances for the occasional intrusion of inconvenient reality. The way this issue is dealt with in the book is that their attraction is so compelling that neither has a choice but to follow their hearts. Make of that what you will.
Morality aside, Karen Robards has an undeniable power to draw upon the emotional heartstrings of the reader. The prose is powerfully wrought and as enjoyable as her more contemporary historical fiction. Tiger’s Eye is definitely worth a read.