Lustful Lord Rockleigh is the talk of the ton. He's never denied his amorous appetites, but he's furious that people are gossiping about his intimate intrigues, thanks to a slanderous newspaper editorial....
Newspaperwoman Mercy Tatlock can't believe Rockleigh has the nerve to file a libel suit against the editor of The Tiptree Trumpet, who just happens to be her very own father! Marshaling all of her charm and cunning, she dreams up some deliciously devious tricks to embarrass the rakish Roc--tricks that will surely convince him to drop the charges. But Roc is not a man to be trifled with. For in his nefarious eyes, Mercy's nettling ways prove most arousing....
I have read Nancy Butler books, and although there were a couple of flops (Lord Monteith's Gift, The Bartered Heart) many were quite good (The Rake's Retreat, The Ramshackle Suitor), with some exceptional ones (The Discarded Duke). In the first chapters of this book, my expectations had risen quite significantly and I thought this was going to be a quite above average book.
Ms Butler sometimes uses some original plots and her characters are quite unusual and engaging. Here our heroine is Mercy Tatlock, the daughter of a newspaper editor & owner. So she has not a very respectable birth and has no connections to the aristocracy, so she would be quite beneath the usual aristocratic hero. And indeed our hero is a Lord, Lord Rockleigh of the book title. Reading the back blurb you would be forgiven to assume he is your usual rakish peer. 'Lord Rockleigh, talk of the ton, lustful, amorous appetites, intimate intrigues'. But not all is at it seems. Although Rockleigh is not a monk, his amorous escapades are neither so notorious nor so important in the plot as the back cover would suggest. Plus he is not a peer as I thought, but the 3rd son of a duke, and Rockleigh is actually his first name. [He is Lord Rockleigh Conniston. And another thing to Ms Butler’s favour is that in her books peers and their family are addressed correctly.]
So Rockleigh is not like the usual powerful and arrogant Duke, but a younger son with too much time on his hands, slightly problematic relations to his parents and brothers and no real purpose or direction in his life. That made him immediately likeable to me, I was thinking of him not just with approval but also some affection. Add to that, that he is having some trouble with his budding addiction to opium, you have not quite your usual hero (contrary to what the back cover would suggest). I liked Rockleigh very very much. I liked his best friend who, worried about Rockleigh tries to talk some sense into him. I liked his parents, who although not close to Rockleigh, their concern is evident. I even liked his elder brother though we never meet him, but whom Rockleigh decides impulsively to write a letter to, on an evening when unusually for him he has stayed at home and finds he has not much else to do.
I have been going on and on about Rockleigh you would be wondering if the heroine plays any role in this book at all. Well, I liked Mercy well enough, but not as much as Rockleigh. After her father's newspaper publishes an editorial which is slanderous for Rockleigh and Rockleigh sues her father, Mercy comes to London to ask him to drop the lawsuit. She engages in series of pranks to embarrass him into dropping the suit (huh? Well don’t ask. I did not understand that part either), since in their initial meeting he proves most un-cooperating. The slanderous piece involves Crowdenscroft, a property of Rockleigh’s in the country. Mercy herself has observed suspicious going-ons, and the slanderous editorial implies that Rockleigh is using that property to gather young boys whose fate would be to given to procurers. Rockleigh is incensed at that article and although he denies engaging in anything like that he refuses to say what the house is actually used for, and what is going on with the boys there. From what I understand that is because he is too proud to have to offer an explanation, or is embarrassed to admit the truth, or he considers it not anyone else’s business. The fact remains that if he had said what the house is actually used for, the misunderstanding and distrust would have ended before it even begun. Mercy would have seen to it that the accusations were retracted, but as it is she will not retract without proof, ie. she wants to know what is actually going on in that house. [I would have thought one is innocent until proven guilty, and not the other way round. And a newspaper would have to prove its assertions, not ask of their victim to prove they are wrong. Anyway…]
Two thirds of the book happen in London, where Rockleigh and Mercy further their acquaintance and that part of the book is quite enjoyable. However we then move into Crowdenscroft and its shady business, the whole thing almost came down crashing for me. I am sure you are confident as I was, that Rockleigh did not gather boys there to sell to London brothels, but had much more innocent and charitable purposes. Probably gathering poor boys, teaching them a trade and finding them a job or something along those lines. Well, I know I should not mention spoilers (although we all know it is some above-board business anyway) but I could not provide a spoiler here even if I wanted to, because did not understand what was going on after all !! There were some strange characters at Crowdenscroft (including a baboon! Yes, you read that right), whom Rockleigh was helping and protecting (as for the boys they were remarkably invisible but we are assured they existed), but what exactly was happening I have no idea. If anyone else reads the book and figures out what was going on in Crowdenscroft and why the secrecy, please let me know.
The other explanation is that the whole Crowdenscroft business is just the excuse to have the h/h meet and the basis of the conflict between them. However, having gone down the 'Crowdenscroft business' route to begin with, the author would need later to come up with something that could justifiably raise the initial suspicions, and explain why Rockleigh does not let us know the whole at the first opportunity, and be a benign and benevolent business that reflects well on Rockleigh. Trying to come up with something to satisfy all these conditions ended up like trying to square the circle: not possible! I guess that is why the author resorted to bringing in even a baboon. It must be an attempt to distract the reader from the fact that happenings at Crowdenscroft do not make much sense.
When the plot moves to Crowdenscroft, it is also were the adventure/suspense part of the book kicks in. And I did not like it. The book worked much better for me with Mercy and Rockleigh in London. In Crowdenscroft many other people get involved and I felt the romance was taking a back seat. Or rather it was over. We just now have to reveal a mystery, catch a villain, get over Mercy’s father objections and Mercy’s suddenly cold feet. It felt just going through some formalities and did not fit in with the tone, pace and setting of the earlier part of the book. My mark would be 8/10 for the pre-Crowdenscroft part of the book. But 6/10 overall. Alternatively, you could read only up to page 140. Unless you do not want to miss the baboon, in which case you should continue…