Don't Tempt Me, by Loretta Chase

>> Thursday, September 15, 2011

TITLE: Don't Tempt Me
AUTHOR: Loretta Chase

PAGES: 384

SETTING: 19th century England
TYPE: Romance

Spunky English girl overcomes impossible odds and outsmarts heathen villains. That’s the headline when Zoe Lexham returns to England. After twelve years in the exotic east, she’s shockingly adept in the sensual arts. She knows everything a young lady shouldn’t and nothing she ought to know. She’s a walking scandal, with no hope of a future...unless someone can civilize her.

Lucien de Grey, the Duke of Marchmont, is no knight in shining armor. He’s sarcastic, cynical, easily bored, and dangerous to women. He charms, seduces, and leaves them--with parting gifts of expensive jewelry to dry their tears. But good looks and charm, combined with money and rank, make him welcome everywhere. The most popular bachelor in the Beau Monde can easily save Zoe’s risqué reputation . . . if the wayward beauty doesn’t lead him into temptation, and a passion that could ruin them both.
When she was 12, Zoe Lexham was stolen from her family during a trip to Egypt and ended up in a harem (sounds almost like a Bertrice Small story, doesn't it?). The story starts years later, when she's managed to escape and make her way back to England. The joyful reunion does have plenty of joy, but it's not all roses, as her sisters are overwhelmed by the scandal caused by her return (society, high and low, finds the idea of the Harem Girl scandalous and titillating).

But if her return is a bolt out of the blue for her family, it's almost a bigger shock to Lucien, the Duke of Marchmont. Lucien is a friend of the family, having been Lord Lexham's ward for a while after a string of tragic losses left him on his own. As a very young man, he was very attached to little Zoe, if in a typical teenage boy "what a pest this girl is" way. When she disappeared in Egypt, Lucien was hit extremely hard by her loss. It was loss too many for him, not helped by the insinuations that Zoe's disappearance must have been somewhat her fault, as she was known for running away constantly, even being nicknamed "The Bolter".

In the years since Zoe's disappearance, Lucien has become a cold, disdainful man, every inch the superior Duke, but Zoe's return shakes his very foundations. After spending so many of her formative years in the harem, Zoe just does not behave like other English girls her age (she doesn't understand that one does not talk about pleasuring men in public, say), and Lucien finds her quite disconcerting. He also finds her quite attractive...

I loved this book, mainly because I adored what Chase did with the characters. Zoe's portrayal is especially fantastic. It's a difficult one to do well, the whole issue of her not knowing society's rules. It could have been played for laughs, which might have made Zoe look like an utter twit. Chase's treatment is much more thoughtful. She has to balance Zoe's years in the harem with the fact that she did spend the first 12 years of her life in England, so she does have at least some knowledge of what's appropriate and what isn't in Society. The moments of genuine ignorance of this were not that many, and all felt believable.

It's more that Zoe, having lived for so long and for such character-forming years outside of Society, can now see many of the strict rules for what they are: silly and arbitrary. And here Chase makes another good choice: she could have written a character who, because she sees the rules as silly and arbitrary, refuses to abide by them. She didn't. Zoe is intelligent enough to realise that silly or not, breaking those rules has consequences, so she has to be careful and can't do exactly what she likes just anywhere. Things like torturing Lucien are fine, she can be herself with him, but if she does something scandalous, say, at a party, the consequences could be pretty bad. She acknowledges that what happened to her has had an impact on the people around her, too. But also, that happy or not about her reappearance, this will have some impact on her sisters. Yes, they are horrible, horrible people, but some of what they say has a germ of truth in it.

The review at Dear Author makes the point that with Zoe, innocence is not the same as naivete, and that's very true. That's especially prominent in how Chase deals with her virginity (she was the concubine of an impotent man). For once, I didn't feel like the author was using this plot point to reassure readers that the heroine is still "good" (which infuriates me). There was a much more interesting point to it, and that's the contrast between Zoe's physical "innocence" and the fact that she's not naive at all, which is something that drives Lucien mad.

Lucien is a bit less interesting than Zoe, but that's just because Zoe is so fascinating. He's plenty interesting himself. One of my favourite types of hero is the cold, arrogant extremely self-possessed man who is completely shaken by the heroine. That's exactly what happens here. He just can't seem to behave in the proper way he's used to when Zoe is around. But that loss of self-possession wasn't just funny and sweet to see, it was also poignant. This is a man who's had so much loss in his life, that he can't quite believe he's actually got someone back. He also has a great difficulty in adjusting his view of the past. zoe had become just one more of those people who had left him, and this has coloured his view of the world. But now it's clear she didn't leave him, she was taken, and that shakes everything.

It's a great book, very much a Loretta Chase. The only reason it's not an A is because I found the very ugly, almost vicious, portrayal of other women, especially Zoe's sisters, quite jarring. It didn't seem to go with the tone of the rest of the book. Still, other than that, it's fantastic.



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