by Loretta Chase, historical (2008)
Avon, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-06-123124-7
Meet James Cordier. The hero of Your Scandalous Ways is the James Bond of his time, but alas, the poor man is so tired of risking his life in dealing with low lives as well as whoring himself out to sleazy foreign women in the name of the English motherland. After one last mission, he will retire for good and ply his amorous wiles only to wholesome English women like a proper gentleman would. Really, just one swan song of a shag and that's it. All he has to do is to charm some Very Important Letters from our heroine.
After her divorce, Francesca Bonnard has reinvented herself as an out and proud woman of ill-repute and she's enjoying the independence that comes with her new status as the most expensive courtesan in Italy. Her career is also a way to protect herself, as being intimate with some of the most powerful men in Italy gives her some kind of political leverage should her powerful politician ex-husband chooses to get back at her. She's not too fond of the men she chose to be her protectors in the past, viewing them as nothing more than a means to an end. That may change when James begins his plan of attack, so to speak, using various disguises and charming alter-egos until he realizes that being himself is the best way to attract the lady's attention. Predictably enough, her ex-husband is not willing to let her waltz happily all over Italy with his letters still in her possession, so it isn't long into the story when Francesca realizes that her life is in danger.
Francesca is a high-priced courtesan in this story, so if you don't like that kind of heroines in your stories, you have best approach this one with caution as Francesca is no fake mistress. Francesca has a pragmatic approach towards sex while many other romance heroines will whip themselves into a frenzy of guilt for even daring to lust after attractive men. While I always have a soft spot for heroines like Francesca, this story wouldn't have worked with a virginal heroine because this is as much a contest between two expert seducers to see who can best the other as it is a story of deception and espionage.
James is a delicious hero. He is a serious scholar intrigued by Lord Byron's latest collection of poetry, a deadly spy who will not hesitate to kill, and a carefree rogue all rolled into a ball of hotness. He may be James Cordier but there is a bad boy side of him - Jemmy the professional hustler. Yummy. He also has some implied woobie traits like hidden insecurities and angsts about his past and his job, but he doesn't ask for or expect sympathy from anyone. Because he is a man, he is allowed to do his job as a spy and fall in love without having to choose between love and his mission - an option that he will not be allowed to have if he's a heroine - so what do you know, James manages to be a pretty good spy at the same time that he's getting so worked up over Francesca that he struggles to tell which way is up and which way is down. He's so adorable when he's obsessed like that.
Francesca is a smart heroine who can match James step by step when it comes to the game of seduction, and that alone makes her one of the rare heroines that I can completely adore without reservations. Her recalcitrance when it comes to accepting help from James can be problematic on the surface, but do be patient and you will eventually learn that she has a pretty good reason to behave the way she does here. I'm not saying that her recalcitrance is wise, heh, I'm just saying that even if I disagree with her decision, it turns out that she does know what she is doing after all. She pulls a braindead stunt towards the end though, but fortunately she gets only plenty of scoldings from everyone instead of a bad end. I think of her as someone comparable to a better Amanda Quick heroine: she can be very reckless at times, but still, she is adorable enough in some other ways to make up for that.
The sexual tension here is too steamy for words. While the love scenes by themselves aren't explicit, the build-up and all that thick sexual undertones that I can cut with a knife make these love scenes far more toe-curling erotic than they otherwise would be. Really, Francesca and James are easily one of the most memorable couples in a romance novel that I've encountered this year.
If I have one issue, it's the epilogue. While it's not sappy, it has Francesca and James happily embracing a lifestyle that is disappointingly mundane compared to the rest of this story. I am also not too pleased about how Francesca so easily forgives England for the way they treated her during the divorce. The fact that she's so eager to jump back into the lifestyle of the Ton has me thinking that she comes off as rather... superficial there.
Still, that's just a minor issue. Your Scandalous Ways has humor, red hot sexual tension, a romance is so tempestuous and breathtaking that I can't imagine that it takes place in such a short time, and memorable lead characters. This isn't just Loretta Chase back at the top of her game, in my opinion, it's Loretta Chase at the top of the game.
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