HQN, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-373-77764-8
Historical Romance, 2013
Usually, titles of romance novels are typically words and phrases, marked by the marketing people as those buzz words that will get those books off the shelves as quickly as possible, thrown together unimaginatively by an editor who must be secretly bored out her wits by all these words. I don’t know whether Kasey Michaels’s What a Lady Needs is a result of the buzz word bingo game or something far more calculated. After reading this story, the title seems like an effort at very dark humor. Or maybe I’m just reading too much into things, and the editor who came up with the title would laugh at me if she ever read this.
Okay, the story. This is the second book in Kasey Michaels’s series revolving around the Redgrave siblings, and I strongly recommend that you read the first book, What an Earl Wants, before tackling this one. This is because there is an ongoing story arc spanning the books in this series, and folks who haven’t read the previous book may feel that there are a few pieces missing from the jigsaw puzzle, so to speak. Also, the arc continues onto the next book. so remove “closure” from your list of expectations while reading this book.
Similar to the previous book, this one has Kasey Michaels venturing into history with a touch of the fantastic. You know, secret societies, overarching apparently all-knowing villain bent on total world domination, and a hint of possible otherworldly and often dark paranormal element. In fact, we have the Society.
Not that it is something to be proud of, as the Redgrave siblings will tell you. They only learned in the previous book that, aside from the usual sick and inhumane debauchery the members committed, those running the Society used it as a front for their activities to topple England and hand it to France in a lovely parcel. Their grandfather and, later, father were key members of the Society. The two men were dead for some time now, but someone has resurrected the Society, to continue its mission, this time to destroy England from within for Napoleon Bonaparte to walk in and take over.
Raised by their grandmother, the Redgrave siblings are as different from their parents as can be. They vow to discover the mastermind of this rekindled Society and take him or her down, so that the country will be safe and, oh yes, their family name will not be ruined by accusations of treason.
In this story, Katherine Redgrave makes her way back to the country house, on a mission. She wants to locate the rest of the Society’s journals, which have been missing all this while. Those journals will contain useful information for the better good for the country, as well as answers to the many questions she has about the Society and her father’s involvement in it.
Actually, the other family members conspire to send her here to keep her out of her brothers’ way. Unfortunately, they soon realize that Kate’s suspicions may be right after all, and that Redgrave Manor may just be the location for those journals. Now, her older brothers scramble to the Manor to make sure that they can minimize any damage Kate may do. After all, she is headstrong, convinced that she’s wise to the ways of the world, and more when in fact, there are some gaps in her knowledge, thanks to her brothers and her grandmother deliberately keeping the worst of their family secrets from her. Poor Kate may be in for a shock should she discover the true extent of her father’s villainy.
Also in the scene is Simon Ravenbill. He left the military when his brother committed suicide, leaving Simon the man’s title – the Marquis of Singleton – and the trappings of that title. Simon is determined to discover the truth behind his brother’s suicide. Simon’s brother was a Society member, and Simon is convinced that those blasted journals will tell him why that man killed himself. The Prime Minister arranged for Simon to be the new BFF of Valentine, Kate’s brother, so that Valentine has an excuse to bring him along to the Manor. Valentine creates a story about how he wants Kate to practice “charming the guys” on Simon – Kate’s debut at Almack’s was memorable because she broke her partner’s nose when he groped her in the middle of the ballroom – but Kate is suspicious. Can Simon distract her with his looks while the boys do their job and look for the journals?
I noted in my review of the previous book that that book had some unabashed feminist overtones that made that book a very interesting read, only, the message was marred by the heroine getting rewarded despite her behavior undermining those themes in the story. Here, however, Kate goes all guns blazing, refusing to stand aside and let the boys play, without once going out of character. Even better, Simon falls in love with her because of this. Page 161 has one of the sweetest internal monologues a hero has ever had for his heroine I’ve come across in a while. Trixie, the matriarch of the remnants of the Redgrave clan, completely steals the show as a woman who had endured the worst depravities at the hands of men, only to emerge stronger, wiser, and cunning enough to ensure that she will never let any man victimize her again.
Throughout it all, Kate is a nice example of a feisty heroine that doesn’t make me want to slit some wrists with extreme prejudice. She knows when to stop, for one, and she’s smart enough to do so when she realizes that she’s way out of depths. It’s nice that the author allows Kate to be true to her character throughout the whole story, as this results in a truly hilarious scene where Kate attempts to seduce Simon using her grandmother’s French cards (don’t ask), only to finally push poor Simon over the edge when she unknowingly peppers a perfectly innocent conversation with phrases that, to Simon’s befuddled mind, are brimming with sexual innuendo.
The romance has some fun and charming moments, reminiscent of the author’s finest moments in the past, but because the romance and the mystery share equal focus in this story, the relationship unfortunately never really goes beyond sweet. It’s enough, perhaps, to realize that these two are so perfect for each other because they understand and enjoy the company of one another like puzzle pieces that fit together. Besides, it’s really cute how Simon unabashedly and willingly embraces his affections for Kate. Angst, what angst? He’s too busy falling in love and playing Scarecrow to Kate’s Mrs King.
Speaking of the mystery, this brings me to the only reason why this book can be considered inferior to the previous book – the mystery itself and the denouement are nowhere a powerful punch in the gut as those in the previous book. But there are enough positives to outweigh this one negative: the hero and the heroine are genuine partners when it comes to the investigation, they play on each other’s strengths and compensate for the weaknesses of the other just fine, and the denouement, while somewhat predictable, leads to some interesting scenes between Simon and Trixie.
Oh, and I’ll say this again, as I did in my review of the previous book: if you are new to the series, beware, this is a very dark story despite the humor. In fact, there are moments when the humor and Simon’s perpetual absence of angst can be very jarring when placed side by side with the sordid elements in the story. How sordid? Well, it may make you feel like taking a long bath after reading this story, but to be fair to the author, going the coy and “let’s pretend that nothing is ever that bad” route will only compromise the impact of the story. Me, I actually like the sordid aspects of the story, but I’d caution readers out there to… well, prepare for some stomach-churning revelations here and there.
In What a Lady Needs, the author has done a pretty good job in what could have been very difficult to do on paper: putting sordid and grim Gothic horror stuff in the same vicinity as cheerful comedy, complete with great timing. I can’t say she pulled this off perfectly, but she did it well enough for me to have a fun, if often disquieting, time reading this book.