By day, I'm a domestic violence prosecutor. By night, I read romance to restore my faith in love, relationships, and humanity in general.
I generally like Lorraine Heath's historical romances, but she does tend to create dramatic conflict through means that tread dangerously close to my personal squick threshold, a phenomenon which I previously wrote about here. Because her writing is generally fairly awesome and I'm familiar enough with her work to know that she generally winds up in a good place in the end, I tend to give her the benefit of the doubt, and I'm more forgiving of Heath than I am of other authors when she uses tropes that generally turn me off (infidelity, dubious consent, child-in-peril). This novella may finally be the exception: the premise bothered me so much that I cannot truly enjoy the end result.
The Last Wicked Scoundrel tells the story of the last of Feagan's (now-grown) kids, a gang of child thieves and petty criminals first introduced in In Bed With the Devil, which Heath published in 2008. Like other fans, I've been waiting a long, long time for Dr. William Graves to finally get his bite at the HAE apple. And now that I've read it, there's not really any way to talk about it without spoiling In Bed With the Devil, so fair warning if that's on your TBR pile and you don't want to be spoiled.
In Bed With the Devil had a subplot involving the heroine's best friend, Winnie, being badly physically and sexually abused by her husband, the Duke of Avendale. In order to save Winnie, Feagan's gang faked Avendale's death and sent him to New Zealand on a convict ship. At the time, Winnie was recovering from a near-fatal beating (in the care of Dr. Graves), so her friends didn't tell her what they'd done.
Only now Avendale is back, but he doesn't march up to Winnie's door and demand his life back. Instead, he's gaslighting her, Sleeping With the Enemy style: moving things around in her house, leaving behind his scent (caraway), letting her catch glimpses of him from a distance and then disappearing as if he'd never been there at all. It doesn't take long before she fears she's going mad (as Avendale intends), and she shares her fears with Dr. Graves.
Here's where the dishonesty of the premise comes to bother me so much. At this point, Dr. Graves should have told Winnie that Avendale was never really dead and she needs to be careful because it appears her psychotically dangerous ex-husband is back; instead, he tells her that it's normal for trauma to haunt people years after the perpetrator has died, and lets her continue to think her mind is playing tricks on her. He's afraid that she won't forgive him for his role in the plot to get rid of Avendale, and he knows he and all of his friends may hang if the plot comes to light, since Avendale is, after all, a duke. He knows that she is in danger, though, so he seduces her (which he's resisted doing for three years) so that he'll be around at night in case Avendale shows himself.
Absolutely no part of that premise was okay with me, and though William suffered a few qualms of guilt, and though Winnie was appropriately furious when the ruse was revealed, all was too easily forgiven for me to feel satisfied by the ending. Maybe had the story been a full-length novel rather than a novella, there would have been time to more fully explore the moral conflict, but as it was I felt like Dr. Graves didn't really get what a hugely offensive transgression it is to let a woman whose violent ex is trying to make her crazy believe that she might be crazy, rather than telling the truth.
Note: This satisfies D is for Doctor in Sock Poppet's A to Z 2014 Reading Challenge.