Harlequin Historical, $6.50, ISBN 978-0-373-29810-5
Historical Romance, 2014
My interest in Lucy Ashford’s The Rake’s Bargain is piqued when I learn that the heroine Deborah O’Hara (hey, we have a rhymer here) is an actress who is also the boss of a traveling troupe that goes around places to perform segments from Shakespeare’s plays. There is an old law that prevents troupes like this one from performing full plays, you see. Unfortunately, this one soon loses its novelty value and becomes bogged down by just too many busy elements packed within its pages. Every other trope is jammed tight here, glazed over with the same-old “I’m the only non-whore in the world” misogynistic element that apparently is compulsory in romance novels these days.
Deborah and her friends performed for an elderly couple shortly before this story opens, and they happened to do that on a Sunday, so the local mayor, Hugh Palfreyman of Hardgate Hall, is going to charge them all for breaking the law. Her friends don’t know this, but Hugh is actually Deborah’s uncle. When Deborah was a child, her mother brought her to see Hugh, only to have themselves tossed out of the house and dismissed. The man disowned them and didn’t even attend her mother’s funeral. Now, Deborah is an orphan – her stepfather died a while back too – and she has inherited the troupe from the man. Anyway, Deborah breaks into the man’s house, steals a few volumes from his erotica collection, and leaves behind a note telling the man to drop the charges or have his naughty reading habits exposed for the world see what a hypocrite he is.
Alas, somewhere in the mix, our hero Damian Beaumaris – the Duke of Cirencester, but you can call him Beau – also makes his way to Hardgate Hall, and he is given Hugh’s horse by an innkeeper who assumes that Hugh is a friend who can return the horse to Hugh. Deborah’s two accomplices spot him coming up the path while they wait for Deborah’s return from her B&E, and assume that Hugh has returned earlier than expected. They decide to capture “Hugh” to give Deborah time to get out of the house.
Eventually, Beau uses this mistake as a means to force Deborah to pose as Hugh’s daughter (they look alike, you see), because Beau’s dead brother was married to the now MIA Paulette and Beau needs this deception going to close some loose ends with regards to his brother’s death.
The above summary covers more or less the first half of the book, but hey, don’t accuse me of giving spoilers, because this summary is pretty much what is said on the back cover of this book too. There are a few more twists and turns in this story, so The Rake’s Bargain really has a lot of stuff happening inside its pages. The problem is that the author drags her heels for about the first third or so of the story, when Beau and Deborah waste time going back and forth about how he wants her to do things she doesn’t want to do, but oh, she has to do it if she wants to protect her friends. It is only later in the book that all the twists and turns start speeding down the railway track, so to speak, like an express train that is out of control, until I’m not sure what is really going on and I don’t feel like trying to sort out the details to figure out the answer.
This is because by that point, I’m pretty much over the whole story. Deborah has an unusual occupation, but this is just another device for the hero to assume that she’s a whore, so that she can spend a lot of time protesting her virtue. Her troupe is, again, another means to force her to play along and put her in a position of weakness to practically everyone in this story. She has no choice, how sad, but to do all these things for Beau, and she can’t walk away when people start slapping her until she falls unconscious when they are not calling her a slut, because, remember, she is doing all this for everybody else. By the time she points out how Beau is going through all this charade for a reason that seems trivial for all the complications he puts them through, I’m thinking along the same line too: the author is putting far too much effort into what is basically a tired old “I’m not a whore, but oh, why won’t my darling believe me?” story.
Deborah also doesn’t show a personality that matches her description on paper. She’s supposed to a talented actress, as good as some of the stars on Drury Lane, and she is also supposedly strong and willful enough to lead her troupe (who are predictably enough portrayed as loyal but inept simpletons). But in this story, I see her getting all emotional, forgetting her lines, and generally being forced to do things by other people because she believes that she has no choice but to play along. When the plain old tired “the one man in my life violated my heart and made me believe that relationships are awful” background story of hers roll in, her role as a victim is cemented. It is a good thing that Beau decides that he loves her amidst all the stuff they are running around doing, or else she’d probably still be running unhappy errands for people right now while sporting a sad face because the world thinks of her as a woman of ill repute.
Beau is the “Dangerous Duke” – ruthless, broody, BFFs with people in high places, et cetera – and he’s exactly what it says on the box: Instant Regency Romance Hero – just add angst and watch his stubble grow. He makes me laugh, though, when at the penultimate romantic moment (at least, that’s what I think it is, since it happens late in the story), he tells Deborah that he will give Deborah a reason to trust him and confide in him… if she will let him have sex with her. It is hilarious because that line works, she puts out faster than someone who can’t hold it in anymore rushing to the toilet. I don’t know who is more absurd in this situation – the guy for coming up with that line to get laid, or the woman for buying it and putting out.
Anyway, I also have to point out that the women in this story fall into one of three categories: cruel hag, amoral harlot, or hapless victim of circumstance. Guess which category the good gals like our heroine fall into. To be fair, the guys in The Rake’s Bargain aren’t diverse either. They are either evil hogs, lying pigs, or inept piglets. But coupled to the whole “I’m not a tramp, I’m really a virtuous damsel, please believe me!” aspect of the story, the negative portrayal of women gives this story an unnecessary misogynistic vibe.
The Rake’s Bargain is like a kitchen sink full of stuff that exudes stinky women-suck fumes. There may or may not be a coin underneath all the crap in the sink, so to speak, but I personally won’t recommend anyone trying to push a hand through all that crap to look for it.