“If you wish, I can take you out of all this.”
In his quest for revenge against a disreputable card sharp, James, Earl of Cambourne, discovers the man’s innocent daughter. While her surroundings are impoverished, her dignity and refinement are unmistakable, and James faces an unsettling question—what will be her fate if he brings her father to justice?
Although yearning for love and comfort, Lucy resists the earl’s surprising offer of protection. That is until a price is made on her virginity, and James is the only man who can save her.
Elizabeth Rolls is an author whose books I’ve enjoyed in the past, and In Debt to the Earl was no exception, although there were some aspects of it that didn’t quite work for me. The story is engaging and well-told, although the characterisation is a little weak; and while the author certainly addresses some interesting themes – the gap between rich and poor and womens’ lack of agency – they are somewhat glossed over and left me feeling a little unsatisfied by the end.
When his young cousin is badly beaten up on the streets, James Remington, Earl of Cambourne determines to find the man responsible and bring him to justice. His cousin owed a gambling debt to a Captain Hensleigh, but James discovers that Hensleigh had sold his cousin’s notes of hand to a crime-lord named Kilby who arranged the beating when payment was not forthcoming.
The earl begins by going to the seedy gambling den where Hensleigh is to be found and wins a large sum of money off him at cards. After accepting Hensleigh’s vowels, James tracks the man to his cheap, dingy lodgings where he is surprised to encounter a rather lovely young woman he at first assumes to be Hensleigh’s mistress. He is shocked to discover that she is in fact Hensleigh’s daughter and even moreso when he realises that the “captain” has abandoned the girl to such poverty and squalor.
At first James sees Lucy simply as a means to an end, believing that if he hangs around for long enough, Hensleigh will return and he – James – will be able to use him to get to Kilby, who, he has discovered, not only ordered the attack on his cousin, but who also caused the death of another young man in similar circumstances. But Lucy’s speech and manners clearly indicate that she was not born to such hardship and he finds himself increasingly curious and drawn to her. Horrified at her having so little, he insists on paying her rent and buying food and coal, but his well-intentioned actions only make things more difficult for Lucy when her landlady assumes she’s entertaining this handsome young gentleman on her back.
Lucy is initially suspicious of Cambourne’s motives in continuing to visit her. She’s proud and doesn’t want his charity, but she also can’t deny the strong pull of attraction she feels towards him, at the same time as she admits that a man of his station is well beyond her reach. James is equally smitten, and, wanting to give her a better life, decides to offer her carte blanche. Yet he doesn’t want her agreeing to become his mistress because she feels indebted to him, and sets about courting her properly. He wants her to want him as much as he desires her, so when he makes his proposition, he makes it very clear that his offer is independent of his dealings with her father and that Lucy has a choice. But, secure in his far more comfortable life, James fails to see that in spite of his scruples, Lucy has no choice at all. She can become his mistress and live in comfort and safety, or she can starve and probably end up walking the streets. This aspect of the story is perhaps a little uncomfortable, but I suspect it’s intended to be; James genuinely does want Lucy to come to him because she wants to, but doesn’t give any real consideration to what her life will be if she agrees.
The author’s depictions of the poverty endured by so many are well-written and really bring home to the reader the dreadful conditions in which so many people lived at this time. Lucy and James are likeable characters – in spite of James’ wrong-headedness – and Lucy’s struggle to decide between temporary luxury in the arms of the man she loves and a blackened reputation, or remaining true to the values with which she has been brought up, feels quite realistic.
In Debt to the Earl is not my favourite book by Ms Rolls, but it’s a quick and entertaining read, featuring a strong storyline and a sweetly sensual central romance.