by Sabrina Jeffries, contemporary (2006)
Pocket, $6.99, ISBN 1-4165-1608-5
I have a such negative reaction to Sabrina Jeffries' previous book that I am somewhat afraid to pick up her latest book Never Seduce A Scoundrel. However, I am in for a great read because I think this is easily the author's best book to date. On one hand, I do wish the story is constructed in a less contrived manner but this book hits all the right spots with me. I love a story where the main characters are crazy for each other while having to overcome several significant obstacles in their relationship, I love a heroine and a hero who can match wits with each other equally, and I especially love a story where the hero and the heroine fight, argue, scream, love, and coo at each other in confrontations that challenge both characters' views about each other, the world around them, and love. This is one book that seems tailor-made for me especially.
Amelia Plume starts off like some reckless silly chit dreaming of adventures, and in a way, she is just that. But her wanderlust and thrill-seeking impulses are tampered by some unexpected moments of maturity that make her pretty okay with me as far as I'm concerned. One evening at a ball thrown by the Dowager Viscountess Kirkwood, Amelia decides to relieve her boredom by stupidly agreeing to deliver an acquaintance's letter to her beau onto the pillow in this man's bedchamber (the man happens to be the Dowager's son). Unfortunately, she ends up in the wrong bedroom, that of the American soldier Major Lucas Winter who is already causing a stir of a wrong kind among the Ton as well as a guest at the ball.
In one of the few too-obviously contrived set-ups in this story, Amelia just happens to chance upon some documents on Lucas' bedside table that implicate Amelia's stepmother Dolly as some person that Lucas is pursuing in some secret mission in town. Oh dear, is Dolly some sort of spy during the war between America and England? Amelia can't imagine her sweet-natured stepmother doing anything so sinister. Lucas catches Amelia in his bedchamber but Amelia fools him into believing that she's just an empty-headed ninny on a daring attempt to pass a love note to a suitor. Lucas doesn't mind pretending to court Amelia so that he can get a lead on Dolly, not aware that Amelia already knows of his secret mission. On the other hand, Amelia is also plotting her counterattack: she will find a way to get close to Lucas so that she can determine what Lucas is really looking for. You can predict the rest, I suppose: a fake courtship that ends up being too real for comfort.
But what raises this book from being yet another fake-courtship Regency historical romp is the fact that the two people involved are playing a game of cat-and-mouse with each other, with the role of the cat alternating between Lucas and Amelia. Both characters are pretty much on equal ground here, which delights me to no end, and while Amelia thinks that she is vulnerable to Lucas' sexual manipulation, in reality she is often the manipulator as much as the manipulated one. There are many instances in their relationship that will strike a wrong chord with readers, I believe - Amelia can be a very fast lady, let's just say, and there is a scene where she deliberately toys with a sword to get Lucas all hot and bothered that has me laughing as well as fanning myself. And then there's that really naughty scene of heavy petting that takes place on a ship. I know, I know, heroines in Regency times aren't supposed to be that fast unless they are stripping down for daddy and all, but hey, I'm all for fast and loose women, especially when the chemistry between Amelia and Lucas are so potent and explosive that it is only natural, it seems, for them to quickly move to second base. Lust isn't an exclusively twentieth-century concept, after all.
While the sexual tension is hot and the sex scenes even hotter, what I really love about this story is how the characters are completely twisted inside out by their romance. Lucas finds his entire school of beliefs and prejudices turned upside down by his love for Amelia while Amelia experiences some credible growth as a character when it comes to love, Lucas, and her family. Lucas pretty much breaks apart as a character and it is Amelia who acts as the catalyst for his breakdown as well as his coming together again to become a person who now learns to find a new reason to live after letting go of the past. Believe me, Lucas is more tortured than his behavior suggests, and Ms Jeffries does an excellent job in letting Lucas behave sometimes boorishly and even like a jerk just to give me a better sense of his character and personality without going overboard or using Lucas' past to justify his behavior. Lucas really has to work to reconcile his feelings for Amelia with the demons of his past.
He has the greatest character development in this story, but Amelia is a pretty well-developed character in her own right. Her immediate and steadfast assumption that Dolly is innocent can make Amelia come off as a Pollyanna at times and her initial "I want adventures!" antics can be annoying, but as the story progresses, she too has to confront her own feelings. How can and how do you love a man that makes it his duty to tear your family apart? Ms Jeffries handles Amelia's growing confusion very well indeed - Amelia's emotional growth feels real and her feelings for Lucas are solid and convincing.
There are many powerful scenes in Never Seduce A Scoundrel that resonate very strongly with me. Some could be silly, such as an otherwise pretty ridiculous "sex in a dangerous situation" scene that ends up being as poignant as it is erotic as Amelia is at the same time trying to distract Lucas from his phobia of dark closed spaces while Lucas is trying very hard to hold himself together so that Amelia can be safe from the bad guys looking for them. There are several playful scenes where Amelia turns the tables on Lucas that also convince me that Amelia will have no problems standing up to this man when he threatens to steamroller her down. Let's not forget those powerful scenes where Amelia confronts Lucas about the issues between them, where to my delight Amelia never turns into some all-forgiving "understanding" heroine but rather she makes Lucas really examine within himself to look for some answers that he is trying very hard not to find.
In short, the fact that Amelia and Lucas are a very well-matched couple gives me the best satisfaction from this book. Sure, the hot love scenes, the witty repartees, and the comedy are all good but nothing beats a complex hero who gets back as much as he gives to a capable heroine who matches him perfectly in every way. Amelia isn't perfect, but neither is Lucas, and their compatibility seems to stem from how they each complement the other when it comes to strengths and flaws. He is her common sense, she is his optimism; he is her cynicism, she is his idealism.
When I finish this book, I have this big silly grin on my face. My face aches a little because of all that laughing, smiling, and sighing I am doing while I am reading this book. Sabrina Jeffries' last few books have been hits-and-misses to me but in Never Seduce A Scoundrel, she takes a big swing and knocks me to the ground by surprising me into realizing just how good and how wonderful this book is to me. I've given some books keeper ratings in the past but there are some keepers of all keepers that I lovingly wrap with protective plastic book covers and place on a shelf where I let it be known that anyone who borrows those books there or dirty them in any way will die. It's been awhile since I add a book to that shelf but I will be doing so now.
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