The Pretender by Celeste Bradley
(St. Martins, $6.50, PG-13) ISBN 0-312-98485-5
*****
At last, at last, two truly intelligent leads and a storyline that is ablaze with originality. Full of wit, charm, humor, and a spectacular romance, The Pretender gets my vote as the best historical romance of the year to date. How did I miss Celeste Bradleyís debut? This is only her second novel, but itís penned like a seasoned veteran.

Agatha Cunnington has come to London to search for her missing brother, James, leaving behind the prosperous country estate sheís been managing in his absence. James is ostensibly off fighting Napoleon, and Agatha hasnít heard from him in several months. A repulsive neighbor has already tried to force her into marriage. Her only clue as to Jamesís whereabouts is a note she discovered, signed by ďthe GriffinĒ. Itís clear to Agatha that if she is going to look about London for this Griffin, she needs to be able to move freely, something an unmarried woman canít do. So Agatha invents a husband.

This fictitious spouse allows Agatha to rent a tidy house in a respectable part of the city, but eventually sheís going to need more cover. Then a man shows up to clean her chimneys, and Agatha decides heíll fit the bill perfectly. A promised sum of money, a bath, some clean clothes, and some lessons in etiquette, and Mr. Simon Rains, chimneysweep, is transformed into Mr. Mortimer Applequist, husband. And Simon cleans up very nicely, indeed.

Itís no accident that Simon Rains has come to Agathaís house. As the leader of a spy network, he is as disturbed as Agatha that his best operative has gone missing. Several other operatives have been hurt, and only one other man has the knowledge to do so - James Cunnington. Now a house has been rented with a large sum of money from Jamesís bank account. Who is this Agatha, and what does she know about James?

Simon is a gentleman now, but his upbringing as a chimneysweep and bastard son of a London whore have left their mark. Against all his intentions, Agatha mesmerizes him. Her lush figure and underlying air of innocence draw him like a magnet, while her sharp mind and refusal to back down challenge his own wits. Simon has met his match. However, Simon believes Agatha to be Jamesís mistress. But heís as eager as she to find James, and together their talents are formidable. So the sharp-witted beauty and the man known as ďthe MagicianĒ for his thievery skills set out to uncover the truth.

Simonís cover, as owner of a gentlemanís establishment called the Liarís Club, comes into play nicely, as does the enigmatic Dalton Montmorency, Lord Etheridge. The Liarís Club is a front for Simonís network of operatives, and as such will anchor this series. The first half of the book sets up the story and begins to twine Simon and Agatha together in their search. The second half resolves the James issue and concentrates more on uncovering a conspiracy and their deepening romance, as Agatha decides she wants Simon no matter what and sets out to seduce him. Simon, aware that his background will bring shame on Agatha and that he canít escape his service to the Crown, desperately tries to resist, but his heart leads him into love anyway.

Simon and Agatha are a wonderful match. Agatha is as close to a perfect heroine as any Iíve encountered. Here is a woman with smarts, daring, and a fun sense of humor, one who is self-aware enough to know the risk sheís taking in loving an inappropriate man, but having looked beneath the surface to the real person underneath, refuses to let him go. She also displays a great deal of common sense. At last, a heroine who doesnít need to be rescued from her own foolishness every thirty pages.

Simon is as clever and funny as Agatha, and the author does a fine job of letting us into his head so we can understand his guarded, but irresistible attraction to this unusual woman. Together, they combust into quite a steamy romance.

The conspiracy thread is well-woven, and the author sets the stage for future stories involving the Liarís Club. One small quibble is the perhaps too-convenient solution to Simonís background, but even that is done with more originality than usual.

The Liarís Club is a real treat. Add this one to your summer reading list - you wonít be disappointed. I canít wait for the next installment; The Impostor is due out in October.

--Cathy Sova


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