Slightly Dangerous by Mary Balogh
(Delacorte, $20.00, PG-13) ISBN 0-385-33811-2
*****
Creating a series of linked books which tell the stories of the romances of a number of siblings has become a popular publishing device. Almost invariably, these series include a eldest brother who rules over the destinies of his brothers and sisters with an iron fist in a velvet glove. Also invariably the final book in the series recounts the romance of this enigmatic and formidable character. Authors who use this device must lie awake at night worrying whether they can create a book worthy of their creation. Mary Balogh - and her readers - can rest easy.

Slightly Dangerous is a fitting climax to her “Slightly” series. Indeed, it’s the best of a very good bunch.

Wulfric Bedwyn, Duke of Bewcastle has been an imposing presence in each of the previous books. Cold, aloof, powerful, and ruthless, he has watched his siblings romantic imbroglios in a seemingly detached manner; but when one of them needed his help and support, Wulf was there. Wulf is the perfect duke. An aristocrat to the bone, he is also a man who takes his responsibilities very seriously. Indeed, from the age of twelve, he was rigorously trained for his position and when his father died when Wulf was only seventeen, he was ready for the onerous duty of being a duke. Fun, relaxation, spontaneity and warmth are as foreign to him as are scandal and improvidence. This is one serious fellow.

Now thirty-six, Wulf finds himself unfamiliarly at loose ends. His three brothers and two sisters have each married and are now happily establishing their own homes and nurseries. When the London Season (and the parliamentary session around which it revolved) ends, he discovers he is somewhat reluctant to return alone to his beloved Lindsey Hall. So when a friendly acquaintance (Wulf has no real friends) invites him to his sister’s house party, he surprises himself by accepting.

Melanie, Lady Renable is both appalled and delighted to discover that her brother has invited Bewcastle to her party. She is delighted because the duke rarely attends affairs such as hers and his appearance will add to her consequence. She is appalled because - horrors! - now her numbers will be uneven. And so she descends on Hyacinth Cottage, the home of her friend and cousin-by-marriage, Christine Derrick, to insist that Christine accept the already refused invitation she had received to the party. It would be too cruel of Christine to subject Melanie to the embarrassment of uneven numbers!

Christine lives in Hyacinth Cottage with her mother and sister in genteel poverty. Her father was an impoverished gentleman who had earned his living teaching. For a brief time, Christine had enjoyed a more elevated status. She had met and married Oscar Derrick, the brother of a viscount and had moved among the ton. But Oscar had died two years earlier and her brother and sister-in-law blame Christine for her husband’s descent into dissipation and death. Christine wants nothing to do with the ton or with marriage.

Thus Balogh has set up a familiar and well-loved scenario: the capture of a duke by a seemingly ineligible woman. And what a delightful woman she is!

Christine is not classically beautiful but she attracts people, both men and women, because of her warmth, her kindness, her enthusiasm, her joie de vivre. Unwillingly, Wulf is attracted. More surprisingly, Christine finds herself drawn to the duke, despite the fact that he is the antithesis of everything she admires in a man. Christine is no blushing virgin; she knows sexual desire when she feels it and when she is its object. When the heat that simmers between the two bursts into flame, she is shaken. Christine is even more shaken when Bewcastle offers her, not his hand, but rather carte blanche.

Wulfric is equally shaken. Mrs. Derrick is not at all the kind of woman he usually finds attractive, but he can’t get her out of his mind. He is even willing to consider marriage despite Christine’s obvious unsuitability for the elevated position of Duchess of Bewcastle. But his offer is summarily rejected. Christine will not wed a man who has no heart.

Of course, the essence of the story is Christine’s discovery that Wulfric does indeed have a heart and his that life can and should be more than duty, that there must be a place for joy and warmth and happiness. And what a joy it is to watch the humanizing of a man who, assuming the burdens of his position at such an early age, had felt forced to shut himself off from emotion.

We do, in fact, discover more about Bewcastle’s past; we learn the forces that made him the way he is. There have been subtle clues in the previous books that the duke is not nearly as cold and impassive as he seems but he has always been an enigmatic figure. Now he comes fully to life. But, to be honest, this is Christine’s story. She is at the center and she is a wonderful heroine. Despite the tragedies in her past, she maintains a positive outlook. To put it simply, she shines and Wulf discovers that he needs her light. Simply Dangerous works on every level. It is Balogh at her best. And when Balogh is at her best, she has few if any equals as a writer of compelling and enjoyable romances.

--Jean Mason


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