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The Damsel*

Justice, Power, and Control in Regency England

The book opens with a large section detailing the tragic family background of Robert Stanley, our hero. He and our heroine, Lady Cassandra Lane, have a fateful meeting at a seedy tavern. She is there at the suggestion of her friend Millicent to find a man who will help her gain control of her fear of intimacy after her brutal assault by Lord Bertram Fairchild. She chooses Robert. He is there drowning his sorrows over Lady Daphne, who has just left with Adam Hartmoor; he had gone to propose to her. She gets the feeling that he would be a good man for her plan. They have quite a night! Cassandra is in control the entire time, and after they part, neither can entirely forget the experience. She comes back into his sphere when she removes to the dower house at the former Fairchild estate, which was purchased by a family member after the Fairchild family’s downfall. They quickly fall into a pattern of assignations of dominance and submission that they both enjoy. But this isn’t quite enough for Cassandra to regain her equilibrium. What matters to her most is justice. She seeks to avenge women who have been abused by men of power like she was.

How far will Lady Cassandra go in her pursuit of justice? Will she endanger herself or Robert? Where will her and Robert’s affair end? Will Lady Cassandra come to a better place in her life?

I have read the previous books in The Villains series. I was initially intrigued by the duology because it was listed as a dark Regency, and while I adore Regency, I wasn’t quite sure what “dark Regency” would be. So I was curious. The duology is very dark indeed as Hart wreaked vengeance upon the Fairchild family because of what Bertram did to Olivia. I absolutely adored the third book of the series, The Butterfly, which is Olivia’s story. Cassandra appeared briefly at the end of that book, and I was curious to see how her story would play out. This book is another very dark Regency tale. Cassandra has been so wounded not only by Bertram’s act but by her own response that she has become hardened and brittle, and now some five years after the attack, she’s wanting to take more control of her life, both sexually and against other predators like Bertram. At times, it is difficult to read how poorly she treats good-hearted, gentlemanly Robert, but the author has done well in showing why Cassandra acts as she does. Then, while watching her act against the predatory male members of the ton, you find yourself wondering how much will be enough for her and if she will be able to get a better place.

Robert is her perfect hero, the yin to her yang–and yes, I am purposely switching the genders here. He has known much suffering in his life even if he looks like the golden child. As his parents’ fourth son, he watched all of his brothers die throughout his childhood and as a young man. The extended section describing the Stanley family’s tragic history is heart-rending to read as the author does an excellent job in showing it, not just telling it; we can feel their pain. Certainly, it shows the fertile ground that made him both the perfect submissive (as he always bent to his mothers will) and the perfect masochist (as his mother was constantly trying to keep him from harm, often to the extreme). As they might say in Regency times, Robert and Cassandra were formed for each other.

While I hadn’t noticed it in the first two books–and I might have to go back and look at them–the author used symbolism here to great effect. There’s a pond near the border of the Stanley property where Cassandra likes to submerge herself as she contemplates the darkness. When Robert walks over to see their new neighbor, he watches transfixed as she enters, knowing that there are a ledge and a big drop off. When she doesn’t emerge for a while, he dives in to go after her. She resists and struggles but eventually lets him bring her to the surface. She lets him know that she didn’t need rescuing, as she was entirely in control of her actions. In beautiful symmetry at the end of the book, there is another scene at the pond. While what happens at this pond perhaps reflects their greater story, there is even a small bit of symbolism regarding tea versus coffee that shows Robert’s personal journey. By the end, they’re both better and stronger people, having grown because of their relationship.

In general, this entire series was darker than I typically like to read, and in particular, I am not a fan of dominant-submissive books. But what I appreciate is that this author has given the darkness in all of the books of this series context. This is not darkness for darkness’ sake, meant to titillate or arouse our more prurient interests. Rather, especially in the last two books in the series, she takes you to the characters’ personal hells and then leads them to the light, or at least to the promise of a better future, made more stark and beautiful due to the contrast. All of the characters in this series are three dimensional, and most are sympathetic to some degree, and the author was able to paint them with such vivid detail that I couldn’t help but understand their struggles and wish for them to have the best possible outcomes.