Raphael Giscard, Viscount de Fontvilliers, does not believe in true love. According to him, all love is merely lust in disguise and he’s willing to wager 5000 pounds to prove he is right. For his quarry, he chooses Julia Brodie and her soon to be fiancé Simon Blake, the darling couple of the season. What Raphael doesn’t gamble on is that in his quest to break up the sweethearts, he will fall victim to Julia’s charms.
For the first two thirds of this book, I didn’t feel the slightest bit of interest in any of the characters. Julia, who is touted as being independent, and even a little rebellious, capitulates far too easily to everyone around her. Whether it is her mother’s pressure to marry well, or Raphael’s seduction, she goes along with minimal struggle. Her main form of rebellion seems to be that she sneaks into the library and reads books, which her mother doesn’t like.
Raphael is an arrogant, spoiled rich boy who thumbs his nose at society and manipulates people simply because he can. As a young man, Raphael’s father Marquay assumes his son's a bastard after learning of his wife’s infidelity. He also can’t believe he could have sired a child who finds his life of debauchery distasteful. Marquay disowns his son and pretty much ignores him the rest of his life, as does Raphael’s distant mother. This is Raphael’s main excuse for becoming a thumb-sucking rake. He may be rich, powerful and have a good place in society, but he had a miserable childhood, so he’s tortured. Break out the violins.
After manipulating Julia into compromising herself, Raphael is furious to find that he must now marry her. Of course it’s all Julia’s fault, which give him the excuse to sulk and treat her badly for a bit longer. It’s after the wedding, however, that the book finally gets interesting.
On page 194, Julia grows a spine. She tells Raphael their situation is as much his fault as it is hers, and just where he can stick his bad attitude. At last the reader is shown the strength and independence promised earlier. Raphael, for his part, seems to be shocked that anyone would tell it like it is and starts getting a conscience and showing some heart beneath his calculating exterior.
The book goes along wonderfully well for a time, with Julia and Raphael learning to trust one another. Raphael begins to examine his demons and realizes his old life is simply not that appealing. At one point one of his former cronies comes by and they talk about how their foursome, once called the Bane of the Ton, have gone their separate ways. Raphael is struck by the lack of sadness he feels at this end of an era. It was a very human moment.
Unfortunately, his improved personality doesn’t last. Raphael suffers another blow to his masculinity and, in the grand tradition of wounded heroes, decides it’s better to be hateful to the heroine than deal with it like a man. Julia continues to make the best of her situation but one occasionally wishes she’d show Raphael the door.
The rest of the book is nice window dressing for the character driven story. The reader gets shown a lot about Almack’s, Whites and the ton as is requisite in a Regency. The subplot involving Julia’s sister Laura is interesting, albeit too neatly solved at the end of the book. As for Raphael’s three cohorts, they’re the basic group of young men. Atvers the toady, Montivale the sympathetic conscience, and of course, the James Spader character, you know, the snake who pretends to be your friend secretly plotting your downfall.
It’s too bad the author couldn’t have started out with the momentum of the last third of the book. As it is, it’s too little too late to bring the reader’s interest back.