Every romance author has a through line to her work and Lorraine Heath’s is damaged people finding strength in each other and themselves to persevere and succeed. The Scoundrels of St. James series has this through line, as well an homage to Oliver Twist. There is an Oliver, a Feagan, a Dodger, a Sykes, and a Nancy. A group of four friends – don’t worry, Sykes isn’t one of them – have survived and escaped Victorian London’s rookeries and built better lives for themselves; in fact, owing to an aristocratic kinship of one of their circle and the enterprise of another, they now rub shoulders with the wealthiest and most powerful people in England. Oh, these are romance novels all right.
Plot Summary (All): A plucky and determined urchin has built a safe, good life. Enter an aristocrat who is both attractive and makes the urchin leery. The aristocrat has secrets, too. They become lovers. A complication arises. The urchin and the aristocrat triumph together with the help of the other urchins.
The St. James men are dangerous and stalwart, the women are gentle and kind. The characterizations are not as strong as they could be and veer towards stereotype. Each book has sweet moments and they are entertaining enough to pass the time, but none of them are keepers, although I did actually buy Midnight Pleasures with a Scoundrel out of impatience with my library, and because I felt I owed Heath money for a least one of the dozen or so of her books that I have read this year.
The Scoundrels of St. James Series:
In Bed With the Devil – Luke and Catherine
Lucian Langdon, Earl of Claybourne, is the reason that all of the urchins were given the chance to make good. Identified by his grandfather as his long-lost grandson, Luke was brought into the family fold; his friends came with him and were given opportunities for education and advancement they would not otherwise have had. Luke does not believe himself to be the rightful heir, but as he was about to be hanged for murder, he thought it best to play along with “the old gent”. Luke has no memories of his life before the rookery and is beset by the kind of headaches repressed memories cause in fiction. He can’t prove to himself that he is the heir, but he’s not about to give up his wealth and privilege either.
Did I mention that the man Luke was accused of killing was his uncle and “the old gent’s” heir at the time? The bastard had it coming, but the juxtaposition of Earl and alleged murderer has given Luke a dangerous reputation and limited his social cachet. Since an assassin is what Catherine, Lady Mabry requires, she has not hesitation about approaching Luke to kill someone on her behalf. They make a deal: Luke wants Catherine to train his almost fiancee Frannie (Surrender to the Devil) in the ways of the aristocracy and, when that is done, Luke will carry out Catherine’s requested killing. That bastard has it coming, too. Luke and Catherine fall in love, events crescendo, justice is served, and the happy couple get married.
Luke was an enjoyable character, but Catherine was wonderful. She is bright and determined, cowed by nothing, and has ovaries of steel. Everyone should have a friend like her.
Side note: Luke has trouble sleeping and drinks to help soothe himself to sleep. This is kind of habit is a common trope, but the amount Luke drinks, dear Lord, the amount he drinks! In one scene, it says he has consumed three bottles of whiskey and that a fourth should do it. Unless he saved them from a minibar, I cannot conceive of anyone being able to drink that many bottles without either becoming a severe alcoholic, coming close to death, or sweating alcohol from every pore instead of the pleasant sandalwood cologne Catherine notices.
Between the Devil and Desire – Jack and Olivia
An up-from-the-gutter-street-urchin-making-good-with-a-gambling-establishment is a standard historical romance trope. Youthful participation in organized crime leads to an honest and lucrative pursuit in which the urchin can rub shoulders with the so-called elite and make an obscene amount of money. Heath did it better in Lord of Wicked Intentions, but the ultimate novel of this ilk is the Lisa Kleypas classic Dreaming of You which features the supreme squalor born hero, Derek Craven. It is a fantastic book and one that comes up again and again on “best” lists. Between the Devil and Desire suffered by similarity for me. I didn’t mean to compare, but I’ve read Dreaming of You many times. Derek is all that is good and yummy about Kleypas heroes and his heroine, Sara, is an excellent character who balances brains and ability with inexperience. Where was I?
Jack Dodger has been summoned to the home of the recently deceased Duke of Lovingdon. It seems the Duke has left his entailed estate to his son Henry, an annual stipend to his lovely young widow, Olivia, and everything else, every coal-scuttle, pickle fork, and shred of clothing, including Olivia’s, to Jack. The catch is that Jack must agree to become Henry’s guardian. Jack is a grasping sort of fellow, so he accepts. What follows is a fun love/hate relationship between Jack and Olivia. Henry is won over in short order. Olivia takes longer. There is a lot of bluffing and posturing going on between the hero and heroine, even though they are obviously well matched. Olivia has spent her life devoted to duty, Jack shows her freedom.
In addition to my unintentional Kleypas comparison, Between the Devil and Desire was also undercut by the profoundly annoying, but unfortunately historically accurate, lack of power Olivia has in her son’s life. Her husband left everything, including their son, in the hands of a covetous stranger. While upset, she is not the seething mass of indignation one would expect. There should have been considerably more “THIS IS AN OUTRAGE UP WITH WHICH I SHALL NOT PUT!” and emphatic flinging of objets d’art.
Surrender to the Devil – Sterling and Frannie
This was my least favourite of the group. It never really captured my interest although it passed the time adequately. Frannie Darling, who might be Feagan’s daughter, works at Jack’s club as a book-keeper and is opening a home for orphans in her spare time. She is gentle and kind and good and smart and devoted. Whatever. At her friend Luke’s wedding, she spots Sterling, Duke of Somethingfancy. They spark instantly. He is going blind (not a spoiler) which he considers a huge personal failing as opposed to a sad reality. For her part, Frannie is distrustful of the aristocracy and does not want to become part of it. Given conditions for the poor in Victorian England, one can hardly blame her. Bad things disrupt their relationship, said issues get resolved. Frannie becomes a duchess.
Midnight Pleasures with a Scoundrel – James and Eleanor
Eleanor Watkins wants revenge. Her twin sister, Elisabeth, killed herself after returning from her Season in London. The traumatic information she recorded in her journal has led Eleanor to Lord Rockberry and a public London park late at night. What she does not know, but what comes in handy very quickly, is that she is being followed by James Swindler of Scotland Yard.
James is the urchin of this duo. Like his friends, his name has been changed to reflect the skills he used in the rookeries to get by. His work as a child transformed into legitimate police work when he became gentrified. He’d had a special bond with Surrender to the Devil‘s Frannie, but Eleanor rattles him in an entirely new way. James is a giant hulk of a man*. Eleanor is petite and feminine enough to have blue birds on her shoulder. She also has tremendous moxie and is as strong and determined as James is to find justice. James is charged with keeping Eleanor away from Rockberry and appears to be doing an excellent job, but when the lord is found murdered things take a sharp left turn.
I really enjoyed Midnight Pleasures with a Scoundrel and am glad that it was the novel I paid for. Major subplots frequently make me whine, but the story in this one really worked for me. It had twists and turns to keep things interesting and the couple’s relationship was believable.
The Last Wicked Scoundrel (novella) – William and Winnie
The last of the urchins gets a novella for his own happily ever after and final visits with the couples from the previous books. William Graves is the doctor who has been called to bedsides throughout the series and his beloved’s is no exception. Winnie, widowed Duchess of Avendale, was savagely abused by her terrifying bastard of a husband and William helped to nurse her back to health. Winnie is now re-entering the world after the polite period of public mourning. She wants to repay William’s kindness by raising money for a hospital. He’s all for it and anything else Winnie might have in mind. He is secretly in love with her and she with him. They get it together and it on before things go completely awry and then are resolved.
*Pet Peeve: Swindler’s interior monologue reveals that so magical are his loverman skills that prostitutes have refused payment. Even if historically accurate, I do not want to hear about the novel’s hero sleeping with prostitutes. More importantly, that is not how prostitution works. Declining payment from a sexual virtuoso client is akin to the porn star party line, “I was really horny, so I thought I may as well get paid for it.” Prostitutes are trying to make money the only way they know how, or, often, under duress. I find it extremely challenging to believe that one was impressed by his skills, or how long he can last (I would think the less time the better), or that she would refuse her payment. This strikes me as entirely a male fantasy.
Also by Lorraine Heath: