I should say right off that this book’s two heart rating is a compromise - the first half never got past one, but the second half was a solid three, so I split the difference. Although there is a certain wacky charm, it suffers from uneven writing and a cast that can make The Three Stooges look like shrewd intellectuals.
We begin with Lucas Pendleton holding the Duke of Westmoreland at gunpoint in his study. The Duke’s affair with Lucas’s younger sister five years ago resulted in a baby and, although she died in childbirth without revealing the father’s name, Lucas recently identified the Duke. Even though Lucas is now a successful shipping magnate happily raising little Harry, he wants revenge - the Duke is to admit his paternity and provide for Harry’s future. The Duke refuses and shouts for help.
While escaping, Lucas trips over the Duke’s daughter, Penelope, fighting off her elderly fiancé, Edward, in the garden. Penelope, once “the wealthiest, the prettiest, the most sought after girl in the world,” is now a pariah following two scandalous broken engagements. Edward, who is revolting, is the last man on earth willing to marry her and he’s looking for a little, um, appreciation. Lucas sends Edward packing and sees in the grateful Penny his opportunity to force the Duke’s hand. He arranges to meet her the next night in the garden, and goes off to plan a kidnapping.
Penny, unknowingly, is only too willing to help. Since he’s gorgeous and can beat up a fat sixty-three year old, Penny invests Lucas with every virtue. By their second meeting, no one can equal him in bravery, daring and chivalrous comportment. He’s a fairy-tale prince, the knight in shining armor she’s dreamed of since childhood. She thinks that “knowing” all this about him proves her mature insight into human nature; in fact it makes her look like a silly twelve-year-old with a raging crush on Leonardo deWhatsisname. It also makes her willing to run away with him.
Lucas, too, has no trouble making himself ridiculous. He and others make much about what a hardened character he is (his career includes enforced servitude as a child, piracy, thievery, lying, cheating, etc. etc.) and, of course, “his skills with the ladies…that he used regularly to get them to do whatever he wanted.” In action, however, he is a complete boob. The abduction goes awry in every predictable way and, in spite of his claims to suavity, his entire blood supply is instantly redirected every time he sees Penny, with the usual results for sense.
In general, I was sorry to see so much of the overly elaborate language that is (mistakenly) believed to evoke every historical period before 1910. People “ruminate” and “ponder” and “cogitate” instead of thinking, and we are belabored with “Lest he perpetrate an exploit even more grievous than those he’d already contemplated” (instead of “so he wouldn’t make a bigger mistake”). It’s much more readable when Ms. Holt puts down her thesaurus.
There is also an unfortunate tendency to string together repetitious lists of description. “It was all she’d contemplated for hours, for days, for so long that she felt quite mad” and “their predicament was ludicrous. It was laughable. It was incomprehensible” and “he had invaded her life, her imaginings, and her dreams and she couldn’t think, eat or sleep” and so on. It was just distracting until it got tedious.
But there’s good news. A little over half way through, everything takes a marked turn for the better. Penny actually starts to behave with the maturity she claims but had not demonstrated. Lucas realizes that his scheme is ill conceived and struggles to put everything right. The plot, previously whirling madly off in all directions, comes together with a steady purpose that the reader is only too grateful to seize. I wish the entire book was written with such coherence and I’ll keep my fingers crossed for Ms. Holt’s next effort.
One brief word about the “R” rating. There isn’t really much sex in this book, but what there is is pretty graphic and some is a little rough. I elected to err on the side of caution.