Slightly Scandalous by Mary Balogh
(Dell, $5.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-440-24111-1
The single most important task of any romance writer is to show us why the heroine and hero fall in love. Too often, authors seem willing to fall back on the convenient “instant attraction” scenario. One smoldering look and the two are off and running. Mary Balogh never falls into this trap. Her protagonists may experience a sudden attraction; they may even act on that feeling. But by the end of the book, the reader always understands why the two fell in love and believes fully in the “happily ever after.”

Slightly Scandalous is a perfect example of Balogh’s skill at showing two people who fall in love almost without knowing it. Lady Freyja Bedwyn and the Marquess of Hallmere begin their acquaintance with a slightly scandalous encounter in a country inn. They set the Bath gossips a-chattering with a set-to in the Pump Room and with their unconventional behavior and betrothal. Neither is expecting to fall in love.

Lady Freyja, the eldest sister of the Duke of Bedwyn, is on her way to Bath to visit a school friend. Bath may seem an unlikely destination for this strong-minded and hoydenish young woman, but Free simply cannot return to her home and listen to everyone talk about the impending birth of an heir to Kit, Viscount Ravensburg. Four years ago, Kit and Free had fallen madly in love, but her brother had convinced her to honor the arrangement with Kit’s older brother, Jerome. But Jerome had died before the wedding and Wulf and Kit’s father had arranged a match. But rather than responding with joy, Kit had brought home a fiancée of his own choosing. Free simply cannot bear to be nearby when the proper if lovely Lauren dutifully produces an heir to the earldom. Hence the journey to Bath.

As she stops for the night in a country inn, Free’s sleep is interrupted when an incredibly handsome man seeks refuge in her wardrobe. Joshua Moore, Marquess of Hallmere is fleeing from an angry grandfather with entrapment on his mind. Their next encounter is equally shocking; walking in Sydney Gardens, Free comes across the man from the inn apparently forcing his attention on a serving maid. When she sees him the next day in the Pump Room, she takes him to task for his ungentlemanly behavior, only to have her quarry turn the tables on her.

Despite this rocky start to their relationship, Free and Josh discover that the presence of the other in Bath is the only thing that makes the staid resort tolerable. When Josh seems likely to fall once again into the clutches of a determined matchmaker, Free agrees to a pretend betrothal to save him. She thinks it will be such fun and can be ended in a day or two. But the best laid plans often go awry.

This is the fourth book which features Lady Freyja. Balogh has thus had time to slowly uncover her character. In A Summer to Remember, she was the disdainful rejected woman, full of anger and pride. In the two intervening books, she has become a more likable character, as we learn more about her life. In Slightly Scandalous she emerges as a fully sympathetic person. Now we understand that she was deeply hurt by Kit’s behavior, that she did love him. Free fears that she will never again experience the passion that she and Kit shared all those years ago.

Josh seems an unlikely mate for Lady Freyja. With her unusual looks, she will never be considered a beauty while he is as handsome as Adonis. If their status is the same, their lives have been very different. Free has always been one of the proud Bedwyns; until five years ago, when his cousin died, Josh was a poor relation in the Hallmere household who had apprenticed himself to a carpenter. He may now be rich and titled, but while Free accepts her rank unquestionably, Josh feels like an impostor.

Yet it soon becomes clear - at least to the reader - that these two are well-matched. It just takes them some time and the intervention of Wulf, Duke of Bedwyn, to come to the same realization. Watching the process is most enjoyable.

This is the second time recently that Balogh has used the “pretend betrothal” scenario. It is a mark of her talent that the two books are so very different. Balogh continues to be without peer in creating compelling, moving and enjoyable romances. Like all her other books, Slightly Scandalous will go on my keeper shelf.

--Jean Mason

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