June 2008, European Historical Romance (Regency England)
Avon, $5.99, 384 pages, Amazon ASIN 0061253634
I was afraid after reading Layton's last (and lamented) book, Bride Enchanted, that she was had joined the Paranormal Parade (though some of her novellas have paranormal elements to them, they are more whimsical than weird). Thankfully, His Dark and Dangerous Ways is a straight Regency-set historical with appealing leads, gentle humor, and not a hint of woo-woo in sight. Such a relief.
Jane Chatham is an orphaned gentlewoman scraping out a living by giving group dancing lessons to very young daughters of the ton. A gentlewoman (not a dance master) teaching is novel indeed, and classes are becoming quite popular as the attendees of Lady Harwood's salon peek in on the lessons in the ballroom to coo over the charming three to five-year-olds imitating swans. The tenor of these visitations takes a turn when an overenthusiastic student bowls Jane over, exposing her limbs and undergarments for all to see. When Rowlandson publishes a caricature of the scene, attendance at the salon by young, rakish men hoping to see more of the beautiful instructor, skyrockets. Lady Harwood's salon is now all the rage, much to Jane's mortification, but Lady Harwood's delight, as she is in the market for a new husband and views her salon as her own personal marriage mart.
A newcomer to the salon is Simon Atwood, Lord Granger, who is there at the behest of his good friend Proctor, Viscount Delancey. The viscount's young brother seems to be smitten with Lady Harwood and Proctor is worried that he is being seduced into marriage by the much older and worldly widow. Simon agrees to watch over the boy and keep tabs on the comings and goings of the salon. Toward that end, he approaches Jane walking home after a lesson, and hires her to pass along to him any gossip she may hear regarding the men attending the salon. Jane, riding the rough edge of penury, agrees, rationalizing that she will not be telling him anything he won't have already heard from the maids or footmen in the house - also in his employ. However, what he learns leads him to believe that a never-caught traitor is in their midst, a supposition reinforced when someone poisons him.
Hiring informants comes naturally to Simon for, yes, he was a spy in France during the late war. Simon spent the last year of the war in a French prison and, with Napoleon on Elba, he has retired. His time in the prison and the isolation of it has changed him. He retired to his country estate to heal his physical and emotional wounds and is just now starting to go about in society again. His reclusive and monkish habits since his return have given rise to rumors about just how badly - and just where - Simon was injured, which in turn gives rise to some misunderstandings and very funny moments between Simon and Jane.
Jane is alone in the world and Layton portrays the dilemma of an impoverished gentlewoman and the very narrow line she must walk in most affecting terms. It is a precarious life, but one she is determined to maintain regardless of her attraction to Simon. Simon, to his credit, respects her and does his best to not lead her astray. For the most part.
I appreciated Layton's adherence to the mores of the time, her gentle humor and engaging characters. While His Dark and Dangerous Ways is nothing really new or original, it is, nevertheless, a pleasing romance of the old school.
-- Cheryl Sneed
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