A mistress. A mountain of debt. A mysterious wreck of a building.
Delilah Swanpoole, Countess of Derring, learns the hard way that her husband, “Dear Dull Derring,” is a lot more interesting—and perfidious—dead than alive. It’s a devil of an inheritance, but in the grand ruins of the one building Derring left her, are the seeds of her liberation. And she vows never again to place herself at the mercy of a man.
But battle-hardened Captain Tristan Hardy is nothing if not merciless. When the charismatic naval hero tracks a notorious smuggler to a London boarding house known as the Rogue’s Palace, seducing the beautiful, blue-blooded proprietress to get his man seems like a small sacrifice.
They both believe love is a myth. But a desire beyond reason threatens to destroy the armor around their hearts. Now a shattering decision looms: Will Tristan betray his own code of honor…or choose a love that might be the truest thing he’s ever known?
Confession time: I still haven’t managed to read all of Julie Anne Long’s Pennyroyal Green series. I’ve read four or five of the books, and the rest are on my TBR Pile of Doom; I think the series started before I got into romance reading in a big way, and I just haven’t found the time to catch up yet (and this isn’t the only author/series/book that applies to!)
Fortunately for me, though, I get to be in on the ground floor of the author’s latest series, The Palace of Rogues, which opens with Lady Derring Takes a Lover, the story of a young widow who takes a most unusual step in order to support herself after her husband dies and leaves her swimming in debt. It’s clever, well-written and sharply observed; the author makes a number of very pertinent comments about women’s lack of agency and the expectations placed on them by society during the period at which the book is set, but she does it in a wonderfully subtle way that is never heavy-handed or preachy, which makes her heroine simultaneously refreshingly different and of her time.
Delilah, Countess of Derring, was married off to the much older Earl when she was barely out of the schoolroom. Her marriage wasn’t happy but wasn’t terrible; her husband wasn’t cruel or abusive, he was just… mostly disinterested. When he dies and the creditors start circling, Delilah doesn’t know what to do; she only knows she has no intention of dwindling into a ‘poor relation’, passed from house to house, always a little out of place, a little in the way.
She visits her husband’s solicitor in order to find out if there really is no money for her – and while she’s there, her meeting is interrupted by a striking blonde woman, also in mourning… who turns out to have been the late Earl’s mistress, Angelique Breedlove.
The first sign that Delilah is going to be something of a remarkable heroine is that she actually feels some sort of kinship with the Other Woman and doesn’t freak out at the knowledge of her existence. In fact, later in the day, they find themselves in the same dingy pub near the docks, and end up sharing a drink… and then agreeing to pool their remaining resources and go into business together. The only thing Derring left his wife was a building in the East End near the docks, and Delilah has the idea of turning it into a boarding house – The Grand Palace on the Thames – but more than that, she wants to make it somewhere their (hopefully many) guests will feel truly at home, and where she can foster a sense of togetherness and family.
Captain Tristan Hardy is Captain of the King’s Blockade, and has the reputation of having almost single-handedly shut down every smuggling ring operating on and around British shores – except one, and it’s pissing him off royally. He’s currently on the trail of some most unusual and staggeringly expensive cigars he knows are being smuggled into England by the ruthless Blue Rock gang, but has so far been unable to stop their transportation from the coast to London. His one lead is that the late Earl of Derring used to smoke them exclusively – and Tristan now decides he needs to find the man’s widow to find out what she knows.
This works as the springboard for the romance between Delilah and Tristan, but as a mystery it isn’t particularly compelling. It’s competently done, but there’s no real sense of urgency about it; Tristan is described as the “King’s attack-dog” a man who will leave no stone unturned in pursuit of answers, yet his investigation into the cigars seems somewhat laissez-faire.
The romance, however, works a great deal better. Delilah and Tristan are well-matched and their tentative steps towards each other are really well done; she’s never experienced desire or sexual pleasure but is no blushing virgin either, and doesn’t leave Tristan in doubt about her interest in him. She’s a terrific heroine, one who gives the impression of being naïve and wholesome – people don’t expect her to be funny or to take a stand on things (a mistake even Angelique makes about her) – but really, she’s clever and witty, as well as being incredibly kind, and genuinely wanting to make people feel comfortable and happy. Tristan is a hard-nosed individual with a job to do; fiercely self-contained, he doesn’t let people know him easily but he simply can’t help being drawn to Delilah, and right from their first, inauspicious meeting, the chemistry between them sizzles. Like Delilah, he has a dry sense of humour and fun that is unexpected, and the moments he allows that snarky, devilishly teasing side of him out are among the best things about the book. Their romance is a slow-burn, full of longing glances and slightly risqué flirtatious comments, and it’s simply delicious.
The other relationship in the book – that between Delilah and Angelique – is unusual and superbly done; I don’t think I’ve ever come across anything quite like it before. Not just because it’s the wife and the mistress, but because it’s two equally strong female characters, albeit from different social strata, with strengths and weaknesses that play off each other and who are bonded through their relationships with – and impoverishment by – the same man. It’s one of the best, most satisfying female friendships I’ve ever read in a romance novel – but the downside is that they’re so well set-up, and the focus is so firmly on them for the first part of the book that I felt Tristan was rather underdeveloped by comparison. And following on from that, while Ms. Long does a great job setting up her motley crew of secondary characters and boarding house guests, (Tristan’s relationship with his Lieutenant provided some wonderful insight into his character) I felt some things could have been omitted without diminishing the overall story and that time and page-count could have been spent with Delilah and Tristan.
Those niggles aside, Lady Derring Takes a Lover was a really entertaining read. Delilah is an engaging heroine and I enjoyed her relationship with the pragmatic Angelique very much; and while Tristan is perhaps a little underdeveloped, he’s still a hero worthy of All the Swoons. The set up for the next book has me very intrigued and I’m looking forward to it immensely.
Welcome back to the world of historical romance, Ms. Long. You have been sorely missed.