The Bargain by Jane Ashford
(Bantam, $5.99, PG) ISBN 0-553-57578-3
Jane Ashford has lived up to, indeed surpassed, the promise she showed in her first historical, The Marriage Wager, with her second historical, The Bargain. If, as I do, you love historicals set in the Regency era, filled with great wit, funny family relations, and a beta hero to die for, you will simply want to devour this book.

Lord Alan Gresham is the sixth son of a duke, a scientist who eschews the world of the ton and prefers his mostly solitary life at Oxford. He is corralled by the Regent into solving the mystery of why the ghost of actress Bess Harding is haunting his princely estate. He is very much taken by a young woman with whom he ends up locked in a closet -- she is Ariel Harding, daughter of the late Bess.

They decide to join forces. Ariel wants very much to discover why her mother supposedly took her own life, and, with Ariel's help, Alan might be able to determine who is behind the haunting so that he can get back to his scientific endeavors. Ariel had not lived with her mother for a decade and had been raised in a girl's school out of town. Surely that explains why she is not a "typical female" -- a coquette, a wily woman, an irrational woman. You see, that's how Alan views all women, although it's a bit hard to understand why once introduced to his mother, who is none of these things and is quite formidable in her own right.

Ariel is a terrific heroine -- part wide-eyed innocent, part skeptic, and her solving several of Alan's brothers relationship difficulties by using the plots of old plays is simply delightful. She very much reminded me of a Julie Garwood heroine, except the ditz factor is markedly lower (and, don't get me wrong, I love Garwood's heroines).

Alan is a scientist who has cut himself off from the feeling part of the world and is utterly unable to comprehend what's happening to him. Believe me, when he does, it's a wonderful thing to watch. His combination of hunkiness and lack of male ego make him quite yummy as far as heroes go. He doesn't have a stable of mistresses and doesn't preen around like a panther or a peacock. And, his sense of responsibility and caring for and of Ariel from the get-go are wonderful to read.

Though these two engage in fairly tame intimate behavior, their chemistry worked just fine for this reviewer. I truly enjoyed both characters, and never minded when they were kept apart by various and sundry secondary characters, especially Alan's brothers. Watching Ariel work her logic on them and seeing her schemes come to fruition was quite fun, and the overall effect on Alan is what finally convinces him to join the living.

The author provides an important side trip for Ariel and Alan where she discovers part of her own identity. The growth for these two characters on this sojourn is quite touching and provides depth, especially as Alan is helped to discover what is really driving him.

What was bothersome to me was the truth behind the ghostly sub-plot. The author's weaving in of a social ill as a partial explanation seemed rushed and nearly unnecessary, although it did bring two secondary characters together, well, almost, and for that I was grateful -- they'd make a great sequel.

Aside from that flaw, I find little to criticize in The Bargain . It made me cry (just a little). It made me titter (quite a lot). That's quite a combination. While not generally a reader of Regencies, I'm tempted to seek out some of Jane Ashford's older writings in that sub-genre. But I'm very glad she made the switch to full-length historicals and I can't wait for her next one.

--Laurie Likes Books

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