Regina Berryman finds herself in a terrible position: she’s penniless, innocent, and unprotected after the deaths of everyone in her family who might have provided for her without somewhat nefarious motivation. Moreover, due to her upbringing with a somewhat cloud-headed feather and a secretively bluestocking radical governess, Regina has the intellectual curiosity and conversational ability of a man.
Yet instead of being tiresome – Oh! I wish to ride astide and fight and sneak in to that place where men pummel each other and no one will notice I’m a girl if I wear breeches! Whee! – Regina is endearing. She’s clueless and innocent, but catches on pretty quick, especially when, focused solely on visiting the London Opera for the first time in her life, she understands by intermission that she’s chosen to attend on a night frequented by the demimonde, with mistresses fishing for new protectors, and Lords Boner with a few extra thousand doubloons looking for their next sexual conquest.
When Regina realizes that she’s been led astray by her maid and by her own blithe curiosity and social ignorance, she leaves immediately, but on her way out, she is spotted by the Duke of Torquay and the Marquess of Bessacarr, both of whom are rakes who absolutely must have been clad in Teflon for all their bonking proclivities, and who decide they want Regina as their own.
The narrative plays with themes of honesty, trust, and most of all, truth. The plot itself is so braided with twists and turns I am not sure how much I can reveal about the ways in which Layton plays with those themes without revealing the unpredictable resolution of the plot.
What I loved best and reread several times were the conversations between Regina and Torquay. Torquay makes no effort to hide his intentions: he wants Regina to be his mistress, and her honesty and frank assesment of his motives and methods throw him totally. The scene I return to in my imagination is of Regina and Torquay, sitting on a fence, talking away the afternoon because he appreciates her brain even as he’s scheming to get in her pants (or skirts) and she is unwillingly captivated by him.
Bessacarr’s dialogue with Regina, and his own inner monologues (which were considerable – something I attributed to the style of the Regency published during the 80’s, which is when this book came out) are equally curious, and worth rereading, especially as he tries to figure out what he’s going to do to thwart Torquay’s horny intentions and advance his own cause.
The way in which the three characters resolve conflicts with their own honor reveals much about the transactions of marriage at the time: how much is security worth, if one is an unprotected woman? How much would one sell or give away for the knowledge of safe harbor? And how much are appearances really worth against that question of security?
Layton’s ability to subtly reform a character slowly and deliberately (using one of the tried and true methods of revealing his childhood and how shitfully bad it was. No one can be a miserable little boy without growing up to be a fractured rake with a wounded heart of some shining metal or another) is powerful, and as I realized she was turning the tables on what “good” and “bad” meant among the characters themselves, and I became suspicious as to who the hero and the villain really were, I was thinking to myself, “How the hell did I miss reading this book? Because holy damn hell. This is a puzzle of awesome.”
The edition I bought features The Duke’s Wager and Lord of Dishonor, so I’m already pages into the next one, while still flipping back to re-read passages from the first. I have another book to point to when someone asks me for older romances that remain part of the foundation of the genre. The Duke’s Wager is demonstrative that Edith Layton had some serious chops when it came to characterization and plot development.