Christian Montcalm was a practical man, if a destitute scoundrel, but his plan to bed and wed the delectable Miss Hetty Chipple would take care of that sticky wicket. However, there was a most intriguing obstacle to his success.
Annelise Kempton desired nothing more than to come between this despicable rogue and the fortune (and virtue) of her young charge. Certainly, Annelise understood the desperation that comes from hard times, but Montcalm would fail – she would personally see to it. All that stands in her way is a man whose rakish charm could tempt a saint to sin, or consign a confirmed spinster to sleepless nights of longing to give the devil his due.
I’ve had a bit of a run of “C” grade books recently, so I wanted my next read to be a bit of a pick-me-up. I haven’t read a huge number of Anne Stuart’s books, but I’ve enjoyed the ones I have read and I admit to having a rather large weakness for that whole starchy-spinster-meets-delicious-bad-boy thing she writes so well.
The Honourable Miss Annelise Kempton is nearing thirty, overly tall, bespectacled and penniless. Her sisters are married with families of their own, and their father’s profligacy left Annelise without home or resources when he died in a riding accident. The daughter of a viscount can’t possibly work for a living, so instead, with the help of her godmother, Annelise has spent the last few years providing companionship or chaperonage to a variety of “friends” in return for bed and board.
Her latest home is to be with Mr Josiah Chipple, a very wealthy merchant who wants to gain his daughter an entrée into society so that she can marry a titled gentleman. Hetty Chipple is seventeen, beautiful, stubborn, rude and dismissive of her new companion, and Annelise recognises quickly that she has quite the task on her hands if she is to ensure that Hetty behaves appropriately at all times. For Hetty has her eye on the most scandalous rake in society, Mr Christian Montcalm, a man who is in dire need of Hetty’s fortune, but will one day be a viscount.
Knowing of Christian’s reputation, Annelise immediately warns Hetty off, but the girl is determined to have him, so instead Annelise decides to try to keep them from seeing very much of each other. It comes as no surprise when Christian finds himself fascinated by the stern Miss Kempton and promptly nicknames her “dragon”. It’s hardly the most flattering of endearments, yet coming from Christian it’s devoid of malice, gently mocking and ridiculously disarming.
The two continue to cross swords at every opportunity; Christian deliberately provoking her, knowing perfectly well that their verbal sparring is a form of foreplay, and Annelise being incapable of resisting his barbs, no matter how infuriating she tells herself she finds him.
Unlike many stories in which the hero has a terrible reputation, we actually get to see Christian live up to his. He can be cold and ruthless, and is certainly not above lies and deceit if it will get him what he wants; access to Hetty’s youthful attractions and her money, and to continue to explore his fascination with Miss Kempton on the side. It seems, however, that Christian has come up against an equally ruthless opponent in the form of Hetty’s father, who proves to be a villain in more ways than one.
The main thrust of the story, though, is the relationship between Christian and his “dragon”, which is really well done. Ms Stuart writes Christian in such a way as to keep him on the right side of the line which has “hero” on one side and “arsehole” on the other. He’s an alpha-male, for sure, and he wants his own way; he’s unscrupulous and manipulative – but there’s something about him that makes him loveable at the same time, a sense of an underlying vulnerability that is breathtaking when glimpsed, such as the moment he tells Annelise:
”Anyone who loved me died twenty years ago.”
Christian is simply delicious, a man trying desperately to prove he doesn’t need love because he doesn’t feel he deserves it, and who does have a strong sense of honour in spite of his attempts to prove otherwise.
Annelise is a terrific heroine, a woman who has been betrayed by those who should have protected her, and who has to tread a very uncertain path, dependent upon others for her very existence. Her loneliness and the true pathos of her situation is brought home in a scene late on in the book in which she discovers that her favourite mare, sold off after her father’s death, is part of Christian’s stable. Rather a large co-incidence, it’s true, but it’s one of those moments that made me feel as though my heart had been ripped out and stomped on:
Nothing mattered but that the one creature left on this earth who loved her unconditionally was suddenly there once more.
In the face of insult, she retains her dignity, resigned to her spinsterhood and wanting nothing more than a cottage of her own and a few cats. Or so she tells herself. But sometimes the thought of a solitary life is too much to bear, and she can’t help but be just a bit smitten by the handsome scoundrel who sends her snapdragons and makes her want things she knows can’t be hers.
Their exchanges are sharp, witty and laden with the kind of sexual tension that is guaranteed to be explosive should it ever be allowed full rein. And when it is… phew! The book may be almost ten years old and devoid of many of the words and terms found frequently in HR these days (no barnfowl, unfolding petals or f-bombs) but the seduction scene is so hot I thought I’d have to go and stand by the open fridge for a few minutes to cool off! And what makes it even better is that they still snipe at each other even as they’re ripping their clothes off 😉
He tugged at his loosely tied cravat, sending it sailing. He ripped at his own buttons, opening his shirt and reaching for his breeches, when he stopped. “One last warning, love. This is no fairy-tale business, no pretty dream. It’s real. It’s dark and messy and for you, painful. In the beginning, at least. You’ll end up hating me.”
“Don’t worry about it, Christian,” she said. “I already hate you.”
Seriously – what’s not to love?
The Devil’s Waltz is a great read. The characterisation is excellent, it’s funny, incredibly sexy and the while the storyline may be formulaic, it’s a formula I enjoy. And nobody writes those redeemable-by-the-right-woman-bad-boys like Anne Stuart.