In the world of Regency romances, few things are more tempting to authors than a good old-fashioned rakehell, a well-born dandy whose main pleasure in life is seducing, deflowering, and abandoning all the ladies of the fashionable ton, from wide-eyed society debutantes to thrill-seeking duchesses. The fact that these rakes are inevitably also habitues of wineshops and betting parlors only adds to their allure as plot devices, because all that sin makes them so deliciously ripe for saving; the worse they transgress, the sweeter will be their eventual redemption at the hands of the story’s heroine.
When viewed from the standpoint of the Regency’s illustrious forebears, it’s pretty clear that this makes the modern rake a spiritual descendant of Mr. Rochester rather than Mr. Darcy. Rochester, after all, has led a hard and worldly life (and is, as he himself points out, old enough to be Jane Eyre’s father), whereas the Darcy Elizabeth Bennet meets is very nearly as innocent as she is (and, I’d bet my best reticule, every bit as virginal), albeit more forceful. Indeed, the closest thing to a rake in Pride and Prejudice is George Wickham, and our author makes it abundantly clear that he’s beyond any kind of redemption. But crusty old Rochester, despite everything, can be won to a warmer humanity, and to love.
That pattern has proven irresistible to modern-day Regency writers, as can be seen in a bumper crop of recent releases, including these three:
A Reckless Desire by Isabella Bradford (Ballantine) – This third book in Isabella Bradford’s Breconridge Brothers series features Lord Rivers Fitzroy, who’s a kind of rakish Johnny-come-lately, having lived most of his young life in bookish pursuits (of all the hopeless things). When his father demands that he marry, he decides to taste the wild life before he’s marched down the aisle, so he befriends a troupe of Italian dancers and quickly becomes the darling of the group:
Rivers was a favorite with the dancers, and not just because he was a duke’s son with deep pockets, either. He was tall and he was handsome, with glinting gold hair and bright blue eyes, but most of all, he genuinely liked this company of dancers. He sent them punch and chocolate biscuits. He’d learned all their names, which none of the other gentlemen who prowled about the dressing room had bothered to do. He not only spoke Italian, but he spoke Italian with a Neapolitan accent on account of having spent much time in Naples with a cousin who’d a villa there.
When Rivers accepts a dare to see if he can transform the shy Lucia di Rossi into a star of the London stage, he thinks he’s signed up for a lark, but Bradford has done a smart and skillful job of alerting us readers that there’s a lot more to Lucia than she initially reveals, and as the two slowly learn about each other, the book expands into a captivating story. I don’t recall ever reading the two previous books in this series, A Wicked Pursuit and A Sinful Deception, but A Reckless Desire certainly made me want to.
The Art of Taming A Rake by Nicole Jordan (Ballantine) – This is the fourth installment in Nicole Jordan’s “Legendary Lovers” series, and the rake in question this time is likewise an atypical member of the species. Quinn Wilde, Earl of Traherne, has a widespread reputation as a rake of the worst kind, but the man himself is actually far more respectable than word of mouth would have it – although one person who certainly doesn’t believe that is our heroine, Venetia Stratham, who’s worried that Traherne’s reputation will dirty the good name of her sister. She views her new enemy with her best attempt at clinical detachment:
Quinn Wilde, Earl of Traherne, was reportedly a splendid lover, and Venetia had no doubt the gossip was true. In all likelihood, his expertise in boudoirs and bedchambers was a chief reason women vied for his favor and tripped over themselves to earn his patronage. Whatever his sensual attributes, though, he was indisputably a rake of the first order.
Jordan’s wonderful, bounding story quickly entangles Venetia and Traherne in each other’s lives, and she blends great sniping back-and-forth dialogue between her two lovers with action and even a bit of intrigue. Despite the “rake” being right there in the title, this book is effortlessly dominated by Venetia, one of the most memorable Regency heroines I’ve encountered in the last few years. Heroines never get more than one Regency apiece, but this is one case where I wish they did.
Happily Bedded Bliss by Tracy Anne Warren (Signet) – This second book in Tracy Anne Warren’s “The Rakes of Cavendish Square” series (after last year’s The Bedding Proposal, which I loved and strongly recommend) likewise lessens its difficulty level by presenting us with, essentially, a rake with a heart of gold, although at least in this case the sordid reputation is entirely warranted. The rake in question is Gabriel, Lord Northcote, who falls asleep stark naked by a country lake (as which of us has not?) and is therefore innocently unconscious when he’s happened upon by feisty Lady Esme Bryon, who takes the opportunity to make a highly, er, detailed sketch of him:
Not that his face was the handsomest she ha ever glimpse – his features were far too strong and angular for ordinary attractiveness. Yet there was something majestic about him, as if a dark angel had fallen to earth. His tall body was exquisitely proportioned: wide shoulders, sculpted chest, long arms, narrow hips and sinewy legs, even the unmentionable male part of him that hung impressively between his heavily muscled thighs.
When her brothers discover the sketch, they naturally assume she’s been the victim of a callous seduction, and they give Northcote the choice between marrying Esme or being pounded into hamburger. He chooses the wedding aisle, and Warren does a terrific job of showing the sensuous and often subtle ways the two come to know and gradually love each other. Northcote may be the most reprobate of our three heroes this time around, but even he is still within the grasp of the Regency Rake Redemption Program.
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