Iíve read and enjoyed many of Ms. Laytonís books, and I think this is her best yet. Itís blessed with a vividly-rendered hero and heroine in a captivating romance; a fast-paced, multi-layered story; and clean, tight prose that successfully provides a formal period flavor without sounding as though the author swallowed a thesaurus.
Sir Alasdair St. Erth has spent all of his adult life preparing to revenge himself on the people who ruined his father and caused him to commit suicide. Now, newly returned to London and seeking the most humiliating manner in which to denounce his enemies, Alasdair is lured into a compromising situation, then rescued by a most unlikely savior.
Sent to London for a few weeks by her family to enjoy the pleasures of the big city, Katherine Corbet is staying with her cousins, the Swansons. Because Kate is very pretty, however, the Swansons have carefully kept her out of Society, afraid sheíll overshadow their ill-favored daughters. When Kate overhears the plot to blackmail Alasdair into marriage, her sense of fair play wonít let her stand by and do nothing.
Alasdair is grateful, if bemused, by his rescue at the hands of this little country mouse, but becomes more interested when he finds Kate is related to the people who wronged his family. Thinking he can use Kate to his advantage, he talks her into helping him - although for a different purpose entirely. Alasdair convinces Kate that the only thing blocking his return to society is his tarnished reputation; an innocent flirtation with a young lady of irreproachable character would polish him up nicely. Plus, since both of them know it will lead nowhere, no one will be disappointed.
It looks like harmless fun and Kate agrees.
Naturally, it isnít harmless at all. Kate, who is a spirited and sensible if inexperienced young woman of twenty-three, soon realizes that sheís out of her depth with Alasdair. Though she knows that his interest is for show, she canít help being affected by his suave attentions. In a book that has very little explicit sensuality, Ms. Layton skillfully builds the sexual tension as Kate - who has a healthy self-esteem and is not reluctant to stand up to Alasdair - finds herself increasingly attracted. Heís fascinating, and sheís fascinated in spite of herself.
In the hands of a lesser writer, Alasdair could easily have come off as a pompous ass. Vastly more experienced, he sees Kateís growing infatuation but is confident he can show her a good time without overstepping propriety. He will achieve his own ends and then send her on her way, physically and emotionally unscathed. Fortunately, Alasdair is painted so sympathetically that I found myself just smiling as I waited for his conceit to catch up with him. With growing astonishment, he finds himself captivated by this unsophisticated female.
Heís also not conventionally handsome, which was refreshing. Soon after meeting him, Kate says of his jaw that sheís ďhung lanterns that were of subtler design.Ē (Did I mention that this book is quite funny? I laughed out loud several times at the pointed observations of both characters and narrator.)
The plot is satisfyingly complex. It showcases the characters and provides a compelling framework for the most important element of any romance - an extremely satisfying love story. Alasdair, driven for years by his need for vengeance, must learn to know himself in order to move beyond anger to happiness. Although Kate does not so much change as act the catalyst for Alasdairís transformation, Iíve read too many stories recently about idiotic ninnies. As a result, I was delighted with a heroine who was fully equipped with a level head, a brain and a sense of humor. I liked her unreservedly and Iíd rather identify with a clever, confident heroine any day of the week.
There is also a cast of fully-formed secondary characters, including ugly stepsisters (er, cousins), well-meaning parents, faithful friends and scurrilous villains - all of whom keep the story interesting with their surprising dimensions.
In short, The Devilís Bargain is fun, emotionally satisfying and involving, and I recommend it no matter what kind of romance you prefer.