Surprising Lord Jack
Zebra / March 5, 2013 / $7.99 print, $5.79 digital
Frances Hadley has managed her family’s estate for years. So why can’t she request her own dowry? She’ll have to go to London herself and knock some sense into the men interfering in her life. With the nonsense she’s dealt with lately, though, there’s no way she’s going as a woman. A pair of breeches and a quick chop of her red curls, and she’ll have much less to worry about…
Jack Valentine, third son of the famous Duchess of Love, is through being pursued by pushy young ladies. One particularly determined miss has run him out of his own house party. Luckily the inn has one bed left—Jack just has to share with a rather entertaining red-headed youth. Perhaps the two of them should ride to London together. It will make a pleasant escape from his mother’s matchmaking melodrama!
Surprising Lord Jack by Sally MacKenzie includes one of my favorite tropes in any genre—a female masquerading as a male (often called the Chick-in-Pants trope). After her aunt tries to trick her into marrying a stranger, Frances Hadley dons her brother's clothes and flees to London in order to demand her dowry from the family lawyer and gain her independence. Dangerous weather conditions force her to stop at an inn, the Crowing Cock, where she inadvertently shares a bed with Lord Jack Valentine, a notorious rake. He mistakes her for a young boy named Francis (with an “i”) and insists on escorting her to London, not realizing the scandal he's creating.
Although Frances Hadley's masquerade is revealed early in the story, the time she spends running around London dressed as a boy is the most humorous, exciting, and revealing part of the book. First, it clearly illuminates Jack's heroic qualities and makes the reader fall in love with him. He's able to relate to Frances as more than a potential suitor—he becomes a father, brother, friend, and mentor. For example, he thinks that “Francis” looks like a “sadly effeminate” boy and wants to help her and protect her. When she falls on her sore backside after a full day of riding astride her horse, she bursts into tears, and he helps her up.
“It's a hand, boy,” he said, speaking in that soft, almost gentle tone again, a tone that made her insides melt. “Take it. I won't hurt you. I promise.”
Even though he knows “young boys aren't terribly concerned about their appearance,” he helps her tie her cravat because she looks “grubby.”
Lord Jack smiled again, as if he knew just how grudgingly she accepted his aid, and stepped behind her. His long, capable fingers made short work of dismantling the linen disaster and retying it into something approaching respectability.
When Frances discovers that her brother has gotten married and moved away without telling her—and will be no help to her in London—Jack is sympathetic because he thinks she “probably hero-worshipped” her brother, the same way he admired his own older brother. For her own safety, he demands she stay with him in London. He even offers to take her to his tailor because her borrowed clothes are so ill-fitting.
While Jack's escorting Frances around London to find her brother, they stumble upon a baby abandoned in an alley. Despite his reputation among the ton as a rake, Jack secretly runs two homes—one for unwed mothers (usually former prostitutes) and one for orphans (usually the children of prostitutes). Rather than letting the baby die of exposure, Jack takes the little boy to his orphanage to be nursed back to health. Frances has to care for the baby on the way to the orphanage, and she's touched by Jack's generosity and kindness.
His face—his nose and mouth—were so tiny and perfect. He was just a baby, a poor infant whom no one cared about. She glanced at Jack. Except for Jack. For some reason, Jack cared.
Jack's kindness and desire to mentor Frances also lead to some awkwardly hilarious situations. After Jack and Frances find the baby, Jack goes into a brothel to ask the Madame whether or not any of her employees might be the baby's mother. While he's talking with the Madame, Frances gets manhandled by an overly-eager prostitute in the lobby named Bessie. Frances is angry and embarrassed because she's a woman masquerading as a teenage boy, but Jack thinks she's embarrassed about her burgeoning manhood and tries to comfort her.
“...has your brother talked to you about the, er, changes a boy goes through in becoming a man?”
“No!” The lad's ears turned red and he started walking faster.
“It's nothing to be ashamed of, though I know it can be confusing. When I—”
“Oh, there's the curricle!”
Jack grabbed the boy's arm before he could dart ahead. He remembered all too well the conflicting emotions of that age—desire, shame, confusion, worry, excitement.“Francis, it's all right if you want Bessie to touch your cock—”
“Oh!” Francis shouted. “We'd better hurry. I'm sure you should be taking that baby wherever you're taking him. I'll just run ahead and climb into the curricle, shall I? So we're ready to go at once?” He managed to twist free and took off as if all the hounds of hell were after him.
The masquerade also serves to better illuminate Frances's true character. She's not a delicate female—she's frequently unpleasant, aggressive, and critical and has some serious anger management issues. She's downright rude to Jack at times, but he thinks she's simply an ill-mannered boy and either ignores her behavior or corrects it. He says, “You'll be a man soon enough, and by then I hope you'll have learned not to take umbrage at every little slight. Save your anger for important things.”
While Frances's feminist tendencies and desire to live independently are laudable, she has a particular aversion towards men that keeps her from finding true love. She's deeply angry at her father for abandoning her when she was a child, and she was raised by her aunt to distrust males in general. Although she doesn't trust Jack, she can't keep herself from being attracted to him. In order to find true love, however, she has to overcome the demons of her childhood and become vulnerable. Ironically, it's the negative repercussions from the masquerade that give Frances and Jack the chance to find their happily ever after and the love they both deserve.
Brittany is a freelance writer, aspiring novelist and small business owner who hopes that heaven will be like a bookstore with an endless supply of free books, free coffee and super comfy chairs.