Hugh Rowland isn’t fit to marry (or so he was told). Being unattached, he is perfect for Sir Parker’s unorthodox assignment: to go undercover as a street thief and infiltrate a crime ring masterminded by members of the Ton. Hugh is doing well with his assignment, too–until he rescues Rebecca Westcott from a rogue in the street. When Rebecca insists on “saving” her street thief by installing him as a servant in her family’s house, Hugh struggles to maintain his disguise. As for Rebecca, she cannot understand why she feels that the rough and criminal servant is the only man she could ever love . . . if she could save him from himself.
April Kihlstrom’s The Reluctant Thief is an endearing book. Most of the credit for its charm comes from the book’s somewhat unorthodox set-up: Rebecca has a compulsion to fix any creature who is wounded. Hugh is certainly that–in both his persona as a lower-class street-thief-turned-reluctant-servant and his true identity.
The impossibility of a romantic relationship creates a strange chemistry between the heroine and hero. Disguised, Hugh is below Rebecca in status, and yet she is drawn to him spiritually and physically. She sees something in him that no one else in her family does: a potential to be more than a petty thief. Because of her upbringing, Rebecca finds her attraction to Hugh disturbing and unnatural.
Meanwhile, Hugh is drawn to Rebecca because of her kindness, strength, and willingness to stake her reputation on the most unpromising creatures (including himself). He sees himself, as he had once been, in her. Struggling to maintain his disguise, Hugh begins to slip up–to show a little of his true nature (and class). Of course, these slips confuse Rebecca further.
Like many Regencies, The Reluctant Thief features an implacable villain and an abduction. Gratifyingly, Rebecca and her sister Penelope are resourceful. Complementing the competent sisters is their eccentric governess, Miss Tibbles. She is–it would seem–a recurring character in Kihlstrom’s books. Unlike many proper companions, Miss Tibbles likes to play matchmaker, guiding the various Westcott sisters towards unconventional grooms.
If the book has a flaw, it is Hugh’s stubborn insistance that he is not fit to marry. Although Kihlstrom gives him a motivation (“Damaged by Love”) for this conviction, it seems a poor excuse for his continued insecurity. Unlike the hero in A Proper Taming (who truly is unable to function in high society), Hugh is competent enough in the Ton. So what is holding him back? His heartbreak is already years in the past.
Nevertheless, The Reluctant Thief is a charming and unconventional romance. I recommend it, and would be curious to read other books in the Westcott Sisters/Miss Tibbles continuity.