In the war against France, Heloise Hampden is a high-value asset to the Crown. When she cracks the enemy’s most recent communication, French agents are sent to kill her. But it’s the agent assigned to protect Heloise who poses the greatest threat to her heart: William de l’Isle, Viscount Ravenwood. Heloise has quarreled with the man they call Raven since childhood, yet always maintained a chaste distance. She’s sure nothing will change, thanks to the disfiguring scar on her face.
Nothing has changed. Raven still wonders how Hell-cat Hampden’s lithe body would feel pressed against his, but for the mission he must remind himself that the woman takes more pleasure in ancient languages than she does in seduction.
His imprisonment six years ago broke him in a way that makes the prospect of love impossible — he’s a shadowed Hades pining for sun-kissed Persephone. Still, his heart beats like mad whenever he’s within ten paces of Heloise, and he’ll do whatever it takes to keep her safe — even if that means taking her to Spain as an unwilling hostage. Protecting her from danger will be a challenge; protecting her from desire will be pure agony.
I fairly raved about K.C. Bateman’s début novel, To Steal a Heart, earlier this year. It’s the rare first book that gets that sort of praise, but Ms. Bateman’s writing, characterisation, plotting and dialogue were so exceptionally good, and the book overall was so enjoyable that I couldn’t do anything other than award it DIK status. Naturally, I hoped that her second book, A Raven’s Heart, would be as good and simultaneously worried that it might not be – but I’m happy to say that it’s every bit as entertaining and well-put together as To Steal a Heart.
William de l’Isle, Viscount Ravenwood – known simply as Raven – played a small supporting role in the previous book when he aided the escape of the hero and heroine from France. He’s a close friend of the Hampden family – of Nic (hero of To Steal a Heart), and his brother Richard – who also work as government agents – and their younger sister, Heloise, a talented codebreaker and the bane of Raven’s existence. But when one of Heloise’s colleagues is murdered by a French agent and it becomes clear that she is now the next likely target, Raven is tasked with keeping her safe while the killer is tracked down and neutralised.
The trouble is that Raven and Heloise can’t be in the same room without annoying the hell out of each other. Raven frequently tells himself that there must be some sort of unwritten rule to the effect that thou shalt not lust after thy best friend’s little sister – but the trouble is that, unwritten rule or not, he is desperately attracted to Heloise, and no matter how much he tries to curb it, the attraction just won’t go away. All he can do is make sure she doesn’t discover how he feels, so, in the manner of overgrown schoolboys everywhere, he has to content himself with pulling her metaphorical pigtails by means of outrageous flirting and lots of delicious, snark-filled banter.
Heloise Hampden thinks that Raven is the most arrogant, infuriating man she has ever met. The trouble is, he’s also the most gorgeous, charming and witty man she’s ever met. He doesn’t want her though – she still cringes to think of the occasion, six years ago, when she plucked up the courage to kiss him and he rejected her – so what else can a girl do but give back as good as she gets in their verbal bouts and never let him know how she feels?
Okay, so it’s a well-trod path. Both characters are desperate for each other but for various reasons are determined not to let the other know how they feel. But the chemistry between Heloise and Raven is completely off the charts and their dialogue is just to die for. The highest compliment I can probably pay Ms. Bateman here is to say that many of these exchanges reminded me of Loretta Chase; they’re quick, snappy, witty, flirtatious, often quite revealing and, most importantly, feel completely natural and unforced.
(The pair are pretending not to know each other at a masked ball -)
“[Ravenwood’s] previous mistress was French. And the one before that an Italian opera singer. I suppose taking up with foreigners saves him from having to exert himself to actually talk to them.”
He slanted her a wicked sideways glance. “I’m fairly sure he doesn’t engage them for conversation.”
… “Well, I expect she’ll be released soon enough. Ravenwood seems to be able to snap his fingers and have any woman he wants.”
… “It’s true Ravenwood’s never had a problem attracting most women, “ he continued, as if they were discussing nothing more innocuous than the weather. “Nothing elicits desire in a female more than the promise of a ducal title and an outrageously large” – he paused teasingly – “house.”
She glanced up at the ceiling and pretended to admire the soaring architecture. “It’s certainly impressive,” she said, straight-faced. “Very… imposing.”
“Ravenwood would be delighted to hear it. A man never tires of women praising the size of his endowments.”
Raven isn’t at all pleased at the prospect of having to play nursemaid to the young woman who maddens and attracts him in equal measure, but on the other hand, he is driven to protect the people he cares about and there’s no way he is going to entrust her safety to anyone else. When she decodes a message which may lead him to the location of a missing friend and fellow agent, Raven doesn’t hesitate to act. He’s heading for Spain immediately, and as he isn’t leaving Heloise’s side, ergo, she’s going to Spain, too.
“People will think we’ve eloped.”
“Not if they know either one of us,” he replied succinctly. “If we both disappear they’re more likely to assume I’ve murdered you and fled the country.”
The story then shifts to a Spain that has been ravaged by war. From the bustling harbour at Santander to a countryside littered with burned out villages, Ms. Bateman does an excellent job with her descriptions of the landscape and in describing the difficulties of the journey that Heloise and Raven have to undertake. As was the case in the previous book, the author strikes a good balance between the romance and the action, and does a good job in creating real sense of peril when necessary and delivering high-stakes drama that is never overplayed or drawn out. I have a real weakness for adversarial couples who cover up their real feelings beneath layers of sexually-charged verbal sparring, and there are only a handful of authors who can do it this well. Raven and Heloise absolutely hit the spot as a couple and as individuals; she’s forthright, clever and determined and he’s simply delicious – intelligent, witty, a bit naughty and fiercely competent, all qualities which turn me into mush.
For all his gorgeousness though, there’s one aspect of Raven’s character that doesn’t quite work and which makes use of one of my least favourite romance genre tropes – the “I am unclean and not worthy to kiss the hem of your raiment” one. Raven is a spy and a ruthlessly efficient killer. He’s killed often and kills without conscience, knowing he is doing what he has to do in order to protect others. But that is his reason for believing he can’t be with Heloise; he is irrevocably sullied and his touch will contaminate her. And there’s also the fact that a traumatic event that took place six years earlier has made him believe the only person he can ever rely on is himself, and he has therefore resigned himself to a life alone. I can certainly understand why both those things would leave some mental and emotional scars, but I wasn’t really convinced, and he gets over them with very little trouble.
But those are minor criticisms in the grand scheme of things, and overall, A Raven’s Heart is a fast-paced, thoroughly entertaining novel that’s definitely going onto my keeper shelf. The writing is confident and intelligent, the romance is sensual and well-developed, and K.C. Bateman’s research into and knowledge of the history of the period is evident from her descriptions of contemporary events and locations. I’ll admit that the odd modern turn of phrase creeps in now and then, but that wasn’t enough to wipe the grin off my face when Raven and Heloise were butting heads, or spoil my overall enjoyment of the story. You don’t need to have read To Steal a Heart in order to enjoy this, but if you enjoy romantic adventure stories in which the sexual tension between the principals is hot enough to melt your Kindle, then you won’t want to miss either book.