In a time when a womanís reputation had to be kept sterling, Althea Bronsen has done a terrible thing. Althea has fallen for Londonís most notorious rake, Sir Valerian Underwood. Valerian makes matters worse when he comes to her asking for her assistance to protect her dear cousin, Claire who is in danger. How could she refuse to help him protect Claire? But who was going to protect her from the charming rake? How would she conceal her yearning when he suggests they pretend to be engaged?
Valerianís problems are mounting. Someone is trying to ruin the reputation of his beloved Claire, his cousin Jasonís new bride, as sweet as the country air from where she comes. Jason is spending more time away with his duties as a soldier. His beautiful Althea is back in his life, although reluctantly and he needs to convince her he would make a good husband, despite his unearned reputation of the ton. The rest of the story is almost comical, with all the rumor and innuendo that could only be worthy of the ton of London, as we watch Val solve one dilemma after another and try to win the hand of Althea without ruining her.
Val is a strong, likable character, although I didnít find him too rakish. The standards for a rakeís behavior have been lowered in this book. In fact, the way he behaves around the ladies makes it hard to believe he ever had a reputation as a rake. But thatís the point. He really isnít a rake, and he obtained the title though a few wrong steps and never really lives up to the bad side of a rake, except when he knows his way around a garden. He is constantly worried about his reputation and what Althea is thinking. What rake would even care?
I found Althea, on the other hand, to be a bit of a porcelain doll, all pretty and proper, but unwilling to come down from her shelf, not even for the man she professes to love. Of course, many readers like this type of prim character and especially enjoy when the faÁade breaks and the real person emerges. When this finally happens, it isnít a monumental change. Iím used to reading more of a torrid romance in the end, and this was a bit like eating warm oatmeal with cream.
There are many secondary characters, like Lady Elf, a well-meaning old duchess who senses Althea secretly loves Val. Thereís even a villain, Andover, who tries to steal another manís identity and is discovered in the end. There was Claire, Jason, Lady Jersey and her daughter and son and a whole passel of people who seemed to travel everywhere in a group with Althea and Claire. When they all traveled to Brussels, I was again disappointed that Val and Althea werenít alone. I realize this is actually how people traveled at this time, but still, it left little time for Val and Althea to be alone to enjoy some romance. In general, this was a fast read with very few surprises.
The Reluctant Rake is truly a story about living down an unearned reputation, but I feel it would have been a better story if there was more romance.