Thursday, August 5, 2010

Lord Perfect by Loretta Chase

Benedict Carsington is the perfect English aristocrat: controlled, honorable, ever mindful of duty and obligation. His behavior is always impeccably correct, and he possesses the bored, arrogant demeanor expected of a man in his high position. Son and heir to the Earl of Hargate, Benedict keeps his emotions firmly in check ... until he meets HER.

Bathsheba Wingate is a notorious widow, a member of the "Dreadful DeLuceys," the perpetually misbehaving branch of an otherwise noble and respectable family. Bathsheba's marriage to the younger son of an earl created a huge scandal that resulted in her husband being disinherited. Her closest relatives are all smugglers, gamesters, thieves or swindlers, but Bathsheba lives respectfully, earning a small income as a drawing instructor and striving to give her daughter Olivia a chance at a better life.

The roguish Olivia forms a secret friendship with Peregrine, Benedict's nephew, and confides to him her plans to seek the fabled DeLucey treasure, reputedly buried on the family's estate by a pirate ancestor. Peregrine tries to stop her, but when he fails he finds, as a young gentleman, he cannot allow Olivia to travel on her own.

Benedict and Bathsheba set out in pursuit, and soon the oh-so-well-mannered Benedict finds himself behaving in inexplicable ways. Kissing the lovely Bathsheba when he knows it can only bring trouble. Drinking far too much wine while listening to stories of her outrageous relatives. BRAWLING with common drunkards in the streets to defend Bathsheba's honor. What is happening to him? And why doesn't he feel shame? Why, indeed, is he having the time of his life?

Lord Perfect is my favorite so far of the Loretta Chase novels I've read. It is the story of a man discovering how to enjoy life after allowing duty to overburden him. It is also a story about weighing a deep love for an "unsuitable" person against the probable consequences: being scorned and rejected by society, disappointing one's relatives and sullying the family name.

As she did in Miss Wonderful, Chase examines these deeper issues while keeping her tone light and her story warm and engaging. Benedict and Bathsheba exchange much witty banter as they begin to understand and come to care for one another. Both of them have shouldered too much responsibility in their lives - Benedict because he is heir to a great estate and Bathsheba because she has had to raise a daughter alone while making her own way in the world. Benedict learns from her what it's like to live without others to fetch, carry and smooth the road for you. She learns from him that wealth and privilege go hand and hand with grave responsibilities.

I adored this pair, as I have all the couples in the Carsington series thus far. Chase's lead characters are such likable, genuine people. Benedict, despite his somewhat arrogant manner, is warm hearted and sensitive, with an appealing, self-deprecating sense of humor. Bathsheba is hilarious whenever she lies to protect Benedict's reputation. She's terribly bad at it; others can see right through her.

Benedict and Bathsheba find not only a lover, but a friend and confidant, in each other. The palpable chemistry between them is not just sexual, but emotional, rooted in empathy and understanding.

Olivia, 12, and Peregrine, 13, are just as appealing as the main couple. Peregrine, a precocious, endlessly inquisitive lad who wants to become an Egyptian explorer, strives to emulate his uncle and to act like a young gentleman toward Olivia. Clever and opportunistic, with a quick temper, Olivia resembles her mother more than Bathsheba would like to admit. Chase's newest novel, Last Night's Scandal, focuses on these two as adults. I'm very much looking forward to reading their story.

As I approached the end of the novel, I worried about how Chase would give Benedict and Bathsheba their happy ending without inventing some hard-to-swallow scenario. I hoped she wouldn't let them off the hook too easily but would test their mettle by having them make difficult choices and face the consequences. Without giving too much away, I don't think Chase could have handled the ending any better. It was pitch perfect and consistent with what she has previously written about the characters involved. It was a bit fanciful, but this is a romance novel, after all. As such, it provided near-perfect escapist entertainment with some depth to it.

My grade: A.

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