ONCE SHE WAS BEAUTIFUL…
Abigail Vautille grew up in the heart of the London rookeries, toiling as a factory worker until one tragic night leaves her disfigured and unable to weave. Faced with starvation or prostitution, she strikes a deal with the rogue who owns her father’s gambling debts—if he excuses the debt, for two weeks, she’ll give him her body, but not her heart.
ONCE HE WAS CHARMING…
Inspector Michael Strickland of the Metropolitan Police has always had a way with women. Success comes easily to him, and he glides through life on his good looks and family name. But Abigail lights a passion within him he never knew existed. As he gets to know her, he realizes two weeks with her won’t be enough. He sees the beauty within her, not the beast she believes herself to be.
TOGETHER, THEIR LOVE IS BEYOND A FAIRY TALE.
Yet Abigail’s scars run more than skin deep. With the end of their agreement so close, can Michael convince Abigail she’s exactly who he wants?
Unusually for historical romances set in 19th Century England, the books in Erica Monroe’s Rookery Rogues series take place principally in the slums and backstreets of London, and their protagonists are people from the working or middle classes. In Beauty and the Rake, the third of the series, the heroine is Abigail Vautille, a young factory worker who is no longer able to earn her living as a weaver owing to an injury to her left hand.
The sole support of her broken-down, gambling-addict father and much younger sister, Abigail worked at the factory run by the Larkers, who, in the previous book, were exposed as the heads of a wide-reaching criminal syndicate. When Abigail agreed to help her friend Poppy to expose the Larkers and bring them to justice, Abigail was captured and cruelly tortured by their hired muscle, Frank Clowes, her mangled hand now a constant reminder of her past and of the betrayal by the woman she had once regarded as her closest friend.
With no other means of earning a living and keeping her father out of debtor’s prison, Abigail has only one option open to her. All she has left to sell is herself, and while being a rich man’s mistress would be preferable to becoming a streetwalker, she is under no illusions about the step she is about to take. Heading to her father’s favourite gambling den in order to retrieve him one evening, she is aghast to discover that he owes two hundred pounds to his latest opponent. They have no money, so Abigail offers herself to her father’s opponent, a strikingly handsome man she does not know. She will spend the next two weeks in his bed in full payment of the debt, and after that, she hopes she will have learned enough of the courtesan’s arts to be able to attract a protector.
Inspector Michael Strickland knows he shouldn’t be in a gaming den but he’s tired of following the rules and of trying to live up to expectations he knows he can never fulfil. He can’t believe his eyes or his luck when Abigail makes her offer; her lovely face has haunted his dreams, and now here she is, offering herself to him. What Abigail can’t know is that Michael is weighed down by guilt over the fact that his carelessness led to her capture and torture; he had information about Clowes that he delayed acting upon which gave the villain the time to find and maim Abigail. Michael wants her badly – and also reasons that he’ll be doing her a favour by being her first ‘client’. He’ll treat her well and then have a word with some of the madams he knows to see if he can find her a place in one of the nicer whorehouses where she can command a higher going rate.
Not long after the bargain is struck, Strickland receives a note from Clowes, who has escaped custody, threatening Abigail’s life. He decides not to tell her – after all, she will be living in his house for the next two weeks and he will be able to protect her in person while also working to bring about the criminal’s recapture.
The story that follows is principally devoted to the slowly developing romance between Abigail and Michael. Although she is prepared to become his mistress immediately, Michael finds he doesn’t want her to come to him simply because of their bargain; he wants her to want him and the delay gives them time to get to know each other before they finally become lovers. The mystery element doesn’t really come into play until quite late on in the book, and I found Abigail’s reaction upon discovering that Michael’s actions – or lack of them – could possibly have contributed to her injuries to be rather over the top and contrived. On the positive side, however, the author’s descriptions of the sights, sounds and smells of the rookeries, and of the harsh lives led by their inhabitants are very evocative, and she makes very clear that these people are as far removed from the glittering world of the ton as it’s possible to be. I have to say, though, that Abigail does not at all sound like a young woman who has grown up in the worst areas of London and who has had little to no education. I can’t imagine such a woman uttering things like: ”We are creatures of malcontent, pressed further and further back into these dark corners until eventually we shall all smother each other.” And it’s unlikely she would have been able to read or write, yet she enjoys reading essays by Swift and Voltaire’s Candide.
In her author’s note, Ms Monroe speaks of her love for Disney’s Beauty and the Beast and how both Michael and Abigail possess elements of both those characters (for eagle eyed readers, there are several references in the text to certain elements of the movie version). Both are lovely to look at, yet Abigail is a bitter woman on the inside, one who has been robbed of all her choices, first by an irresponsible parent and then because her injured hand means she can no longer find honest work. And Michael, who has spent most of his life among the people of the slums, is indifferent to the hardships they face, preoccupied with his own sins and the guilt he carries for them. Gradually, they help each other to face their demons and emerge stronger as a result of their mutual love and trust.
In spite the reservations I’ve mentioned, and of the occurrence of a few modern turns of phrase and Americanisms, Beauty and the Rake is a well-written and developed romance between a pair of engaging protagonists. I will certainly be keeping an eye out for whatever Ms Monroe writes next.