Virtue’s Prize by Kathleen Beck
(Zebra, $4.99, PG) ISBN 0-8217-6358-X
How do you like your Regency romances? Do you like them to be at least somewhat plausible, somewhat rooted in the era they purport to represent? Or are you willing to forego all resemblance to reality and just go along for the ride? I place myself in the former category, which is why I am placing a warning label on Kathleen Beck’s new Regency romance. Neither the premise, nor the characters, nor their behavior worked for me.

The premise is an old and inaccurate standby: the Gypsy heir. The only author who ever pulled this one off correctly was Mary Jo Putney. Her “gypsy heir” was the legitimate child of a legitimate marriage, the only way he could inherit the title. There was no provision for “legitimating” a bastard in such a way that he could inherit a title in Regency England. (I might add that there was an additional problem with Beck’s handling of this incorrect scenario. Our hero is the present earl’s nephew and his elder brother’s son. If he could have been “legitimated,” he would have become ipso facto the earl and the whole premise of the rest of the story would have disappeared.)

Roman Knightley had been raised by his natural father despite his gypsy birth. Unfortunately, his father died and left him to the not so tender mercies of his uncle who turned him into a stable boy. Roman fled back to his mother’s people, took the king’s shilling, made a fortune at cards, and returned to England where he has established a reputation as a rake.

Now, his uncle, rather than see the title and estate revert to the crown (only the title would have reverted; the estate could have been left as the earl wished), reluctantly agrees to “legitimate” his nephew, but on terms. The nephew must marry a woman of the uncle’s choice. Since Roman loves Brentwood Manor, he agrees. But the earl, determined to make his nephew miserable, is resolved to find him a pious, unattractive bride.

Which leads us to Virtue Goodbody. Virtue is the only daughter of a recently deceased fire-and-brimstone vicar. As her father is dying, she discovers that her mother was not dead as she had been told, but abandoned both husband and daughter and took up a licentious life in London. Since Virtue has nowhere else to turn, she sets off to meet the mother she has never seen, convinced that she will be the instrument of her mother’s redemption.

On the way to London, she encounters Roman in a most embarrassing fashion. But to the secretly romantic Virtue, he appears as a hero in a romance. Roman, who is the one embarrassed, is much less taken by the scrawny, ill-dressed woman who got him into the suds.

Virtue’s mother, Suzanna, is not delighted to meet her fully-grown daughter. Indeed, she insists on calling Virtue her cousin and resists her daughter’s attempts at redemption. But suddenly, Virtue’s arrival on the scene seems providential. Suzanna’s inadequate but wealthy lover has been coerced by the earl to find a suitably depressing wife for Roman. Virtue is a gift from heaven.

And so Virtue is taken to Brentwood Manor and her betrothed turns out to be the hero of her dreams. Of course, Roman is not nearly as pleased to meet his fiancée.

This book has more twists and turns than the maze at Hampton Court. It has a blackmailing butler, a secret brother, an earl who thinks he is the Duke of Wellington, and much more. What it doesn’t have, interestingly enough, is much of a romance. Virtue “falls in love” with Roman for his good looks and one act of kindness. Roman “falls in love” with Virtue the moment he sees her transformed into the beautiful woman who lurks behind her prim facade. (Yes, of course, there is a transformation.) But since the two spend almost no time together, almost never converse, and never get to know each other, their “falling in love” seems pretty superficial. Which rarely works for me.

Which is kind of a shame, because both Virtue and Roman have the potential to be interesting characters and could have been an attractive romantic duo.

The secondary characters are a generally sorry and nasty lot, including the very unmotherly Suzanna. Her tardy “redemption” and her happy ending do not seem deserved.

So, despite some real promise, I must conclude that Virtue’s Prize falls short of being an acceptable Regency romance. Perhaps if you can overlook the improbabilities that litter the story, you might enjoy it more than I did.

--Jean Mason

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