The Last Hellion is the last of the four books in Ms Chase’s Scoundrels series, which are linked via a number of recurring characters; and it can perhaps be seen as a sequel to the wonderful Lord of Scoundrels. We met Vere Mallory, Duke of Ainswood, in that story when, drunk as a lord (!), he mistook the newly-married Lady Dain for a light skirt and was immediately pummeled into the dirt by Lord Beelzebub himself, and forced to apologise.
Ainswood is the appropriately titled “Last Hellion” of the title, and comes from a long line of ne’er-do-wells. He never expected or particularly wanted to be a duke, but a series of tragic accidents and illnesses sees him attending a seemingly never ending succession of funerals, the last of them for his beloved nine-year-old nephew and ward, Robin.
Anyone familiar with Lord of Scoundrels will recall how skilfully Loretta Chase recounted Dain’s backstory in the book’s prologue, introducing us to an unloved child who believed himself unlovable. Here, the author yet again introduces her hero in an incredibly poignant manner, and all I will say about the prologue to The Last Hellion is this – have a box of tissues handy. You’ll need them.
In the months following his accession to the title, Vere has thrown himself into an unending round of debauchery, cut himself off from his remaining family and eschewed his responsibilities, both to his title and to his remaining wards, Robin’s two sisters. He presents himself to the world as a dissolute, cynical rake who cares for nothing and nobody, but behind that façade is a grieving, angry man who despises himself, his position and his life, a man who wants so badly never to be hurt again that he pushes away everyone he cares for and walls off his emotions.
Lydia Grenville is a crusading journalist who is currently working to expose the underhand practices of one of London’s most notorious madams. She is on the verge of catching the bawd abducting a young woman but is prevented at the last minute by Ainswood, who mistakenly believes that Lydia, the madam, and her quarry are merely ladies of the night engaged in a quarrel. Furious at the interference of the ill-dressed, ill-mannered but gorgeous lout she recognises as “one of the most depraved, reckless and thickheaded rakes listed in Debrett’s Peerage”, the encounter ends with Lydia knocking Ainswood on his arse and stalking off – but not before the sparks have well and truly begun to fly and both have recognised something of a kindred spirit in the other.
Like Vere, Lydia has suffered the pain caused by the deaths of loved ones, in her case, her mother, who died when she was ten, and her younger sister who died from consumption contracted during the year the girls spent locked up in debtor’s prison with their neglectful, drunken father.
The relationship between Ainswood and Lydia is jam-packed with wit, humor, and enough sexual chemistry to blow a hole into the middle of next week. Neither of them wants to desire the other at all, let alone with such intensity, and they fight their fascination with each other every step of the way. The way Ms Chase conveys their extremely reluctant mutual attraction is nothing short of masterful – the listener is never simply “told” anything; instead, we’re shown time and again through dialogue and action that these are two people who are meant to be together and who really need each other in order to become the person they’re meant to be.
There are several sub-plots running through the book. Following the encounter which Ainswood disrupted, Lydia rescues the girl the madam had been trying to abduct, who turns out to be a runaway from Cornwall, Tamsin Price – a sensible, well-bred young woman who becomes Lydia’s friend and confidante. Bertie Trent, still the lovable buffoon from Lord of Scoundrels gets to show another side of himself and comes into his own, Lydia discovers the truth about her past, and there’s a dramatic kidnap plot as well as the various scrapes Lydia gets into as the result of her journalistic investigations.
Both Ainswood and Lydia are extremely well-drawn, complex characters, who hide the truth of themselves from the world. Vere is, deep down, a decent, compassionate man who has been so severely affected by the losses he has suffered that he can’t bear to open himself up to more. Lydia is a woman trying to make her way in a man’s world – she’s frequently subjected to ridicule because of her height (she’s taller than most men), her quick temper, sharp wit, and willingness to stand up and be counted; yet beneath it all, she’s soft-hearted and a bit of a romantic at heart.
The Last Hellion is a terrific listen. The quick-fire dialogue between the principals is to die for, the romance is brilliantly written, and I loved the glimpses of the friendship between Ainswood and Dain that we got to see. I did find that the pacing slowed a bit in the middle, and that the ending meandered a bit; the truth of Lydia’s parentage is revealed alongside the aforementioned kidnap plot, and although both are relevant in that they help the protagonists in making peace with their pasts, I was so invested in Lydia and Vere’s relationship that I wanted to spend the time with them rather than focused on something else. But that really is my only complaint, because otherwise the book is every bit as good as its predecessor.
Kate Reading’s name attached to an audiobook is like having it stamped with a seal of quality. She’s someone I’ve enjoyed listening to for some time – her recordings of Lauren Willig’s Pink Carnation series are terrific, and I really enjoyed her performance in Madeline Hunter’s Dangerous in Diamonds, which was the first book I’d heard her narrate – but I remember bemoaning at the time that she hadn’t recorded a great number of historical romances. A little bird must have heard me, because since making that stupendous recording of Lord of Scoundrels last year, she’s gone on to narrate more books by Ms Chase as well as a number of other historicals, including His at Night by Sherry Thomas, which has quickly become one of my favourite audiobooks.
Her performance in The Last Hellion is every bit as good as it is in the other books in this series – and may, in fact, be even better, which is really saying something. Her characterisations of all the principals and main secondary characters are excellent and very well defined; Ainswood and Dain are easy to tell apart as are Lydia and Jessica, and Bertie Trent sounds just as sweetly bluff and slightly bewildered as he ever did. Tamsin’s Cornish accent sounds authentic but isn’t so thick as to make it unintelligible, and the various servants and city dwellers are given accents appropriate to their ages and situations.
Both narrative and dialogue are perfectly paced and delivered. Ms Reading gets to the heart of the characters and the story in what is an incredibly nuanced and emotionally resonant performance. In a recent interview, she said that she is going to be recording a number of Ms Chase’s other books, and if they’re all as good as this one, we’ve got a lot to look forward to.
Narrated by Kate Reading
Narration: A+ and Book Content: A-
Unabridged length 12 hours 59 minutes
Available at Audible for 1 credit or $17.46 for members; $24.95 for non-members. It can also be purchased from Audible via Amazon.