In spite of having distant noble relatives, Lydia Grenville grew up in the dregs of society. As such she came to earn a well-deserved reputation as a dogged journalist who isn't afraid to get her hands dirty for the sake of getting a story. She also has no fear of exposing the ugly truth about the sufferings of the lower classes. Having watched her mother and sister die in such conditions, she has a soft spot for women and children that lurks beneath her prickly exterior. One day, while in pursuit of a madam, who is also a suspected murderer and known to kidnap young girls for her brothel, Lydia finds her with a naïve country miss in her company. Using all her wits and ingenuity, Lydia tries to get the girl away from the prostitute and have her arrested. She only partially succeeds in her quest however, as she is interrupted by the handsome Duke of Ainswood.
Vere Mallory is known as a dissolute hellion who loves to brawl and couldn't care less about his title. He only followed Lydia into the alley to give her a piece of his mind after she nearly ran over a man with her carriage, but he ended up with a feisty woman on his hands, who knows every dirty fighting trick in the book. He couldn't help but be embarrassed by the way she neatly laid him out, but at the same time, he can't seem to stop thinking about the fiery beauty. Much to his chagrin he begins to discreetly search Lydia out in her favorite haunts and eventually becomes further embroiled in her conflict with the madam when he reluctantly agrees to be her partner in crime to steal back jewels that were taken by the madam from the girl who is now under Lydia's protection. Vere can't seem to help but be entranced by her lovely form and fiery personality, but after loosing nearly his entire family in just one decade, he is reluctant to love anyone. Vere finally realizes he's already lost his heart to the tantalizing vixen, but it may be too late when Lydia's arch-enemy vows to make her pays for taking both the girl and the jewels.
I've seen a number of Loretta Chase fans say that The Last Hellion is equally as good if not better than her incomparable Lord of Scoundrels which is part of the same series. Before I had even finished the first chapter, I could see why. It began with a prologue which explored the hero's background, creating a sympathetic character right from the start who had some pretty good reasons for being a hellion and a dissolute rake. Then readers are introduced to a highly unconventional heroine who is his match in both wit and intelligence. From there, it took on its own form and tone which in some ways was similar to Lord of Scoundrels but in other ways quite different, and although it didn't entirely measure up to that perennial favorite for me, it was a very good story in its own right.
Oddly enough, I felt that the narrative focused a little more on the heroine than the hero, which is rather unusual for a romance. Lydia was a bluestocking journalist, an independent, working woman of the middle-class. She spent the early years of her childhood growing up in poverty until an aunt and uncle took her in as a teen. She does have some family ties to Dain the hero of Lord of Scoundrels, and has watched him from afar for years. However, Lydia has never been a part of the Ballister family, because her mother was essentially disowned when she married Lydia's father. Even though she wasn't nurtured in the Ballister family fold, her bloodlines definitely show through in her feisty temper and spirited personality. Much like Dain was nicknamed Beelzebub, Lydia has been dubbed such things as Lady Grendel, the monster, and dragon-lady. It makes her sound pretty terrible, and on the outside she was full of vim and vinegar, but inside, I think she had a bit of a romantic's heart even if she wouldn't admit it. What I loved about her was how she took up the cause of women everywhere, because of the tragedy which befell her own mother and sister. When it came to women and children, she was a real soft-heart. I enjoyed reading about her trying to rescue young girls who were being tricked into prostitution, and how she boldly wrote the ugly truth about living conditions for impoverished women and other social issues, not caring one whit what others thought of her for it. She was a real scrapper too, and I couldn't help but laugh when she managed to knock Vere on his backside at their first meeting. Lydia was just full of brashness and ingenuity. I'm a very different sort of person than Lydia, so I can't say that I related to her on a really deep level. I will admit though that aside from when her feminist ideals started to get in the way of her possibly marrying Vere, I did admire her in many ways.
Vere, of course, is the subject of the book's title. He considers himself to be the last hellion in the Mallory family line, and as such behaves like one quite often. Mostly though it's about him trying to cover up the pain of loosing a large number of family members to accidental death and illness in a very short span of time. In fact, he was far from being the next in line for the title of Duke, but ended up with it, when everyone else passed away. He's almost as unconventional as Lydia, never really behaving much like a high-ranking member of the nobility. The image Vere projects to the public at large is one of a cynical, dissolute rakehell who cares for no one but himself, but buried beneath all that bluster, is an honorable man who tries to do the right thing. It takes a while for Vere to realize that he bears no fault for the sad and unfortunate demises of his relatives, and that it is OK to be a "good" man.
Vere and Lydia together are almost like oil and water. Normally, I'm not a big fan of love/hate relationships or of couples who spend a large part of the story bickering, but I couldn't help but like them especially in the beginning when they're first getting to know one another. The sarcastic wit that they employ in their bantering was pure genius, and it also built some excellent sexual tension between the pair. I was completely expecting a passionate explosion when they finally gave in to their desires, but the love scenes were a little more subdued than that and consequently, a bit disappointing. The thing I really liked about all their fighting is that the author very subtly lets the reader in on the fact that it is mostly just a form of posturing to mask their fears and insecurities. Lydia wears her tough girl mask to hide the frightened little girl inside, and refuses to allow bad things to happen to her or anyone like her again. Vere hides behind his mask of dissolution and indifference to hide the pain and grief of loosing so many loved ones. Bringing out these emotions in Lydia and Vere, albeit from a distance, was an ingenious way to help the reader understand what makes them tick.
The Last Hellion had a sizable cast of secondary characters. Dain and Jessica (Lord of Scoundrels) both appeared, as did Dain's son. Vere has a pair of errant young wards, Elizabeth and Emily, who share their cousin's penchant for getting into trouble. Helena Martin, who first appeared in Captives of the Night, plays one of Lydia's best friends and confidants. Francis Beaumont who was murdered in that same book also appears, so this story apparently comes before Captives of the Night chronologically even though it falls later in the series. He is involved with a madame who becomes Lydia's arch-enemy when she rescues a hapless girl from her clutches. Lydia took that girl, Tamsin, who is a real sweetheart, into her home, where she became Lydia's other best friend and biggest supporter. Then there is the highly amusing Bertie Trent who ended up being a good friend for Vere. Bertie is a little slow on the uptake. In fact, he can be an utter nitwit at times, but he has a good heart that makes him quite endearing. He is so completely different from the type of guys Vere usually hangs out with that it made him the perfect foil. Bertie previously appeared in Lord of Scoundrels and The Mad Earl's Bride. In a weird sort of way, I had liked him in both of those stories and was happy to see him finally get his own HEA.
Overall, The Last Hellion was a very good read. The main thing that kept it from being a keeper for me is that the pacing was a little slow in places, particularly in the middle between the time that Vere proposed and the scenes where they were informed that Vere's cousins were in grave trouble. At that point, I found my mind wandering more than it had at other places in the book, and I felt that the previous wittiness had either lost some it's edge or had started to wear thin on me. Otherwise, The Last Hellion was a good wrap-up for the Scoundrels series that I would definitely recommend to my fellow romance readers particularly those who have previously enjoyed Lord of Scoundrels or Loretta Chase's other works.
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