The Devil's Waltz
by Anne Stuart, historical (2006)
MIRA, $6.99, ISBN 0-7783-2273-4

By right I should love a book like Anne Stuart's The Devil's Waltz since the hero is really a bad boy but I can't help feeling that something is missing in this book that prevents it from joining other books by this author in my keeper shelf. That something is a believable emotional bond between the hero and the heroine. It is as if sometime into the story Ms Stuart has lost sight of the romance in favor of coming up with all kinds of machinations to spice up the interactions between the hero Christian Montcalm and the heroine Annelise Kempton.

Christian is really a bad boy and now he wants money. More specifically, the shipping magnate's daughter Hetty Chipple's dowry. But before he can seduce Hetty into marriage, he has to contend with Hetty's chaperone Annelise who is determined not to let Christian come close to Hetty's boudoir or dowry. Annelise isn't exactly a typical chaperone since she's too high born for such common employment, she's instead a person who makes her living helping debutantes make a good debut in Society. She gets her payment in the form of lodging and other charity from the family that requests her services. Hetty however is set on either ignoring or disobeying Annelise's advice so poor Annelise has her hands full already with Hetty. Christian coming into the scene is definitely not good news for her, especially when Christian decides that the seduction of this homely looking but so-proper spinster would make an amusing diversion as he tries to get his grubby paws on Hetty's money.

Christian has the sad, bad past blues to explain his actions because in Romance Novel Land, it is simply impossible to assume that a good-looking aristocratic bastard will turn out to be a self-absorbed playboy because of the advantages he has been given since birth. Annelise resents her lot in a believable way and her attraction to Christian is convincing enough in the sense that any woman with a pulse that likes men will surely be attracted to a good-looking man like Christian. While I find the attraction between those two plausible, I cannot say I feel the same about the so-called love between the two of them. As the story progresses, Ms Stuart starts turning Annelise into one of those so-understanding heroines who will forgive the hero of anything because she thinks she loves him. The thing is, yes, I'm hit in the head several times about how sad Christian's childhood is, but Annelise doesn't truly know the extent of Christian's sad past. And even so, I find it hard to imagine that Annelise would be so reasonable and forgive a man that treats her the way Christian treated her just because he has a sad past. Annelise just realizes that she loves him and it's free-falling all the way for her. Love makes Annelise weak and vulnerable to Christian and I'm not sure whether I like that.

Another reason that holds me back from fully enjoying the romance is Annelise's motives for preventing an union between Hetty and Christian. It is clear that Hetty's father doesn't care who his daughter marries as long as the husband has a title that will wash away the taint of the Cit from the family. Hetty doesn't want a proper husband. Annelise is not exactly fond of those two and they reciprocate her feelings. So, why is Annelise trying so hard to keep Hetty away from Christian? I can understand the other more stereotypical motives driving Annelise into Christian's arms, so to speak, like her so familiar "I need to get laid for that one sweet memory!" blues and all because I suppose the editor will take off her sneakers and smack Ms Stuart's bottom with them for being such a bad author if she dares overlook any of the Ten Heroine Traits And Motives You Must Have In Your Book If You Are Published With Us axioms set out by the publisher, but this particular insistence on her part to keep the very fast and easy Hetty away from the even faster and easier Christian feels like the biggest plot contrivance in this story.

Because the romantic aspects of the relationship don't ring real to me, I find the characters mostly going through the motions of a love/hate pairing without caring too much about what will happen to them. It also doesn't help matters that those two are soon involved in an external subplot featuring cartoonish villains. The Devil's Waltz is more sunny than the author's previous books - in fact, this is the closest one would get to Anne Stuart doing romantic comedies - but the epilogue is way too sweet and sunny to be anything but an ill-advised editorial "suggestion" considering how Christian is the kind of character that realistically don't turn into a Lisa Kleypas hero by the last page.

I like the fact that the hero sees the heroine as a beautiful woman when she is in truth a plain woman in the eyes of everyone else. This is a kind of honesty about the heroine from the author that I appreciate after reading too many books about heroines that call themselves plain when in truth they look like lingerie models (even the author is guilty of this in the past). I appreciate that the bad bad hero doesn't beg for pity (although Ms Stuart does the begging for him by constantly bringing up his past whenever Christian threatens to terrify genteel readers into catatonia). However, I can't help feeling that there is a cobbled-together quality to The Devil's Waltz where there are some large compromises made on the author's part to make the story more acceptable to the mainstream public. That's not a bad thing by itself but it's when these compromises are made to the point that some of the characters' motivations and several aspects of the romance come off as contrived, forced, or unrealistic as a result, that's when this book hits a snag where I am concerned.

Since Anne Stuart's brand of bad and crazy doesn't translate too well when she's trying to make her books more marketable, I wonder how things will be if the author just ditches the whole bad boy shtick and creates a goody-goody hero. Perhaps that will be a more interesting experiment, more interesting, at least, than this latest effort in the drive to make Anne Stuart more acceptable to the readers out there who generally prefer books by Julia Quinn and Amanda Quick rather than A Rose At Midnight.

Rating: 77

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