I am a pretty tolerant reader but I have one bete noir - the “too stupid to live” heroine. I recognize the dilemma faced by authors who want to create a strong and independent heroine who can take care of herself, who is not a cipher, who is active rather than reactive. There is a very fine line between a heroine capable of acting independently and one who foolishly places herself in danger to demonstrate her independence. Unfortunately, Kate Talisford, the heroine of Barbara Dawson Smith’s new Regency historical falls into the latter category.
When she was sixteen, Kate stole into Lord Gabriel Kenyon’s bed. Her motives were two-fold. First, she was in love with his lordship; second, she was trying prevent him from taking her scholarly father away on an expedition to Africa. Lord Gabriel, despite his rakish ways and the undoubted attraction of the red haired beauty, sent Kate away, as well he should have. He and Professor Talisford set off on their journey the next morning.
Four years pass and Kate finds herself in a parlous situation. Her mother has died, the bank where the family money was kept has failed, and she has just learned from another gentleman, Sir Charles Dawson, that her father was murdered in Cairo. She and her sixteen year old sister Meg are moving from their comfortable cottage in Oxford into rented rooms. All she has left of her beloved father are the boxes of his notes and finds that were sent to her.
Sir Charles claims that her father gave the guardianship of his daughters into his hands. He also offers £500 for the contents of the professor’s study. But Kate refuses both his offer and his claim. She hopes to use her father’s notes to write a book about his discoveries.
Then, who should turn up but Lord Gabriel, accompanied by his chimpanzee, Jabbar. Not surprisingly, Kate is not happy to see him. She both remembers his rejection and blames him for her father’s untimely death. To her surprise, Gabriel also claims that her father asked him to watch over his daughters and offers her £1000 for his effects.
When Kate informs him that Sir Charles has made a similar claim, Gabriel is forced to tell her that Sir Charles was responsible for her father’s death. This avid collector of erotic antiquities had stolen an unusual and very valuable statute that the professor and Gabriel had discovered in Africa. Kate immediately decides to accept Sir Charles’ invitation to visit his home in Cornwall and to retrieve the statute. On discovering Kate’s plan, Gabriel moves quickly to spirit Kate and her sister away to his ancestral home. He will go to Cornwall, leaving Kate and Meg safely ensconced with his grandmother. He wants not only the statute, but also to bring his friend’s murderer to justice.
Kate, of course, refuses to accept this relegation to a passive role and, with the cooperation of Gabriel’s grandmother - who perceives the attraction between the two and hopes that marriage will end Gabriel’s wanderlust - becomes part of a complex scheme to find the statute.
Kate acts foolishly on a number of occasions and to add to the mix, sister Meg proves equally rash. I suppose Meg’s youth might be offered as an excuse, but she comes across as a spoiled brat rather than a determined young lady.
I am hard pressed to characterize this book. It an uneasy blend of melodrama and humor that doesn’t quite work. The plot is full of clichés and improbabilities. The characters are not very compelling at best and annoying at worst. And the romance has elements of “I don’t like or trust you but you really turn me on,” especially on the heroine’s part. This is not one of Smith’s best efforts.