Viscount Vagabond is a fun Regency romp, an early work by that Incomparable herself, Loretta Chase. Although it employs many standard Regency devices, including hidden identities and interfering servants, thanks to Chase’s writing ability, it’s definitely much better than your standard Regency Romance.
The sheltered, bookish Catherine Pelliston is running away from an arranged marriage to one of her papa’s drunken, unwashed cronies. She arrives in London, hoping to find help from her former governess; greenhorn that she is, though, she is promptly gulled, drugged, and kidnapped by Mrs. Grendle, the proprietress of a notorious brothel. But Catherine, though naive in many ways, is also rather resourceful (and extremely lucky). She manages to convince her first client, a gorgeous, completely inebriated man, not only to stop short of disrobing, but to rescue her from her situation, too.
Catherine soon realizes that she may have jumped out of the frying pan and into the fire when she finds out her governess has eloped with a music master. But Max Demowery isn’t quite the complete wastrel he appears to be. He is, in fact, Viscount Rand, a man with a wild streak but a very, very soft spot for lost strays. When he finds out about Catherine’s situation, he promptly delivers her to his sister, the Countess of Andover, who just happens to be married to a distant cousin of the Pellistons. The Andovers decide to give Catherine the Season she never had; after all, the best way to avoid marrying a repugnant husband is to find another that will suit much better. But things are never as simple as they should be, naturally – there is the danger of Catherine’s short career as a soiled dove being discovered, for one. Then Catherine’s intended shows up, ready to claim his runaway bride and, more importantly, her sizable marriage settlement. In the meanwhile Catherine has to struggle with her completely inappropriate feelings for her rescuer. She is much too practical to fall in love with a complete rakehell – or so she keeps telling herself, anyway.
Nobody writes charming rakes with a conscience better than Loretta Chase, and Max Demowery is no exception. He is the rebellious second son who suddenly finds himself in a position of responsibility after his older brother dies. His reckless behavior is convincing, not gratuitous; in short, he’s a bad boy who’s also a really nice guy. His befuddlement over his feelings for Catherine is rather adorable. His tastes tend to run towards passionate Amazons, and the light, delicate, studious Miss Pelliston is the complete opposite; his confusion and denial make for some rather nice humorous moments. His unconscious courtship of Catherine is a lot of fun to read, and Chase handles his peccadilloes with a deft, sure hand: so many Regency rakes are glorified slutty alcoholics, but Max doesn’t cross the line.
Catherine is also quite delightful. She is a bookish spinster who has been emotionally abused by her alcoholic father. Her automatic wincing every time she voices an opinion in the beginning of the story (a reflex she developed to avoid being hit by flying mugs and sundry missiles used by her father whenever in a drunken rage) is both funny and rather sad. She does some pretty stupid things, however, and for that matter so does Max, but Chase has the good grace to explain the motivation behind their actions. The two of them even acknowledge that they have behaved in a less-than-intelligent manner, which demonstrates a level of self-awareness many romance heroes and heroines can only dream about attaining. One particular encounter at the end is salvaged from Too Stupid to Live status by Catherine’s redeeming actions, which had me cheering her on.
The best thing about the book is the writing. I’ve said this before, but I think it bears repeating: Chase is one of the few American authors with an ear for the cadence of Regency speech. A few scattered “old chaps” and “egads” do not a British accent make; many historical and Regency authors write dialogue that sounds like bad Saturday Night Live impressions. Not so Chase. Her dry wit brings to mind Georgette Heyer, or even a naughtier, bawdier Jane Austen.
It’s always hard for me to judge Chase’s work because I can’t help but compare her books to works of perfection like Lord of Scoundrels and Knaves’ Wager. In the end, Viscount Vagabond, while not Chase’s best work, is definitely far better than average and is worth hunting out, especially if, like me, you’re a Chase-a-holic.