Really, it’s too much to expect any normal man to behave like a staid accountant in order to inherit the fortune he deserves to support the lifestyle of an earl. So when Derek Saunders’s favorite elderly aunt and her ill-conceived—and possibly fraudulent—Lady Travelers Society loses one of their members, what’s a man to do but step up to the challenge? Now he’s escorting the world’s most maddening woman to the world’s most romantic city to find her missing relative.
While India Prendergast only suspects his organization defrauds gullible travelers, she’s certain a man with as scandalous a reputation as Derek Saunders cannot be trusted any farther than the distance around his very broad shoulders. As she struggles not to be distracted by his wicked smile and the allure of Paris, instead of finding a lost lady traveler, India just may lose her head, her luggage and her heart.
The Lady Travelers Guide to Scoundrels & Other Gentlemen might well win an award for being the longest title in historical romance! The first book in Victoria Alexander’s new Lady Travelers Guide series, it’s a light-hearted romantic comedy, set mostly in Paris around the time of the Great Exposition, in which a starchy spinster comes up against a charming scoundrel and discovers perhaps her previously held, deeply entrenched opinions aren’t as set in stone as she’d believed them to be.
Miss India Prendergast has come to a meeting of The Lady Travelers Society in an attempt to ascertain the whereabouts of her cousin, Lady Heloise Snuggs, who recently set off on an extended journey which, India has been given to understand, was organised by the society. But she hasn’t received a letter or other communication from Heloise for some weeks and has become concerned for her safety. Further investigation has revealed that the society has done precisely nothing for Heloise; there is no record of their reserving hotel rooms or making any travel arrangements on her cousin’s behalf. India is convinced the organisation is a fraud, taking money from unwitting women whose dreams of exotic travel and desire to throw off the shackles of everyday existence and live an adventurous life blind them to the fact they are being swindled.
Derek Saunders has lived the life of a rakish young bachelor, kicking up a storm in society and enjoying a reputation as a scoundrel of the first order. Or he did, until his uncle, the Earl of Danby told him that he’d cut him off without a penny if he didn’t change his carefree, frivolous ways and start acting a bit more like the heir to an earldom should. Oddly enough, Derek finds he has a talent for numbers and business and he quite enjoys working with the earl’s estate and business managers. But the discovery that his great aunt Guinevere and a couple of her friends seem to be running some sort of scam is something he hadn’t banked on having to deal with. Deciding that his uncle won’t look kindly upon Derek’s abandoning his duties in order to pursue a missing traveller and work out what his aunt is up to, Derek apprises the earl of the situation, and is surprised when he comes up with a plan to both find Lady Heloise and keep aunt Guinevere and her friends out of prison.
Derek had already decided that it’s his responsibility to find Heloise, and that as her most recent letters came from Paris, that he’s going to start looking for her there. When India insists on accompanying him, he already knows enough about her to know that she won’t brook a refusal, but his uncle takes that news in his stride. He undertakes to employ a firm of private investigators to find Heloise while Derek keeps India otherwise occupied and out of the way in Paris… it’s a good idea, and although Derek isn’t completely happy about keeping Miss Prendergast in the dark, he recognises it’s the most likely way to find her cousin.
So the stage is set. The prim and proper spinster and the dashing rogue – accompanied by Professor and Mrs. Greer, who are acting as India’s chaperones – arrive in Paris and start to make the rounds of all the hotels at which Heloise might have stayed, and continue the bickering and verbal sparring they’d begun at their initial meeting. India is stiff and unyielding in her attitude and outlook and makes it very clear that she doesn’t trust Derek as far as she could throw him. Fortunately, however Ms. Alexander saves her from being a complete prig by having her be able to admit when she’s wrong and hinting at the vulnerability that lies beneath her unbending exterior.
Derek is handsome, charming and clever, and while India infuriates him, she intrigues him, too. During the time they spend together in the course of their search for Heloise, he discovers a different side to her, one she rarely allows to come to the surface, but one he likes very much. India has thought herself ordinary all her life, and while she isn’t exactly a great beauty, there’s no doubt that she’s striking and intelligent, and Derek likes that she isn’t afraid to speak her mind. She’s practical, sensible, self-assured and annoying; in short she’s the exact opposite of everything he has ever wanted in a woman, and yet he finds himself wanting rather desperately to kiss her and, in a few short days, feels as though she has become a part of his life.
As their search continues, India has to admit to herself that she truly likes Derek and is attracted to him, but there’s still the pesky matter of whether she can bring herself to trust the man when she believes him to be responsible for the fraudulent activities of the Lady Travelers Society.
One of the things I’ve enjoyed in other books I’ve read by this author is the dry humour and witty dialogue, and both those things are present in abundance here. The verbal thrust and parry between India and Derek is delightful, and there’s plenty of banter between them and other characters, too, most notably between Derek and his step-brother Val, the Marquess of Brookings (who I hope is going to get his own book at some point), whose relationship is obviously one of deep affection and frequent exasperation. The author has a splendidly deft touch and the dialogue never feels forced or too drawn out; it’s not laugh-out-loud, but it’s wry, funny and clever.
But while this is all lovely and light and frothy, the problem is that there’s not a great deal of substance beneath the surface. While India’s growth – from a woman who believes herself to be content with her narrow horizons and who thinks that efficiency, practicality and being well-organised are all she needs to be – into a woman who realises that there is more to life and has the courage to reach for what she wants, is nicely done, there isn’t a great deal of chemistry between her and Derek; there’s no question they like each other, but there are none of those spine-tingling moments of sexual tension and awareness that are hallmarks of a really good romance.
The book boasts a colourful supporting cast, including Derek’s stepbrother, and his mother, a grande dame in the truest sense; and I really enjoyed the author’s depiction of Paris, the street cafés, the grand hotels, the wide boulevards, all of it putting the reader right there on the viewing platform of the Eiffel Tower or among the crowds strolling along the Champs Elysées.
The Lady Travelers Guide to Scoundrels & Other Gentlemen is not going to find its way onto my keeper shelf, but it is an entertaining, easy read, and is exactly the sort of thing you might want to pick up when you’re in the mood for a non-angsty, funny and well-written historical.