has also reviewed:

Keeper of the Swans

Lord Monteith's Gift

The Rake's Retreat by Nancy Butler
(Signet, $4.99, PG) ISBN 0-451-19794-1
Good news, Regency fans! All three of this month's Signets are first-rate, entertaining stories. But I think my favorite is this one, Nancy Butler's third Regency romance. Perhaps it's my fondness for the reformed rake plot. But whatever the reason, I am delighted that the promise Butler showed in her first two books has come to fruition. This is her best book yet.

The rake in The Rake's Retreat is Beecham Bryce. In his case, there is no mistake about his reputation. Since his Cambridge days, when he seduced (or was seduced by) a don's wife), he has managed to gain a reputation as one of the most licentious men in society. Why he even started (and owns) the infamous Bacchus Club. This is a real rake.

But Beech has returned to his family home, Bryce Prospect, so that his father can take a journey to warmer climes with a clear conscience. Since his naval brother died at sea, Bryce is all his father has, even though he has been disinherited for his unseemly behavior. Little does he expect that his quiet sojourn in the country will be marred by murder.

Yet that's exactly what Miss Lovelace Wellesley claims has happened when he finds her fleeing from a wood on his estate. Miss Wellesley is an actress who was mistakenly left behind when her parents departed from the inn in which they were staying, thinking she was safely asleep in the props wagon. When Bryce takes Lovelace to investigate the spot where the murder occurred, they find no body, but instead encounter Lady Jemima Vale, who is sketching (rather badly) the woods.

Bryce is about to discount young Lovelace's story when Lady Jemima stands up and discovers that her dress is spotted with blood. Something dreadful happened at this place, and clearly Lovelace is in danger since she saw the murderer. Bryce suggests that the girl take refuge in his home until her parents can be located.

This offends Lady Jemima's sense of propriety. She knows all about Bryce and is unwilling to let an innocent girl, even if she is an actress, fall into his clutches. So Bryce invites Lady Jemima to accompany them to Bryce Prospect to protect Lovelace from his supposed improper attentions. In fact, Bryce is much taken by Lady Jemima and would not mind pursuing the acquaintance, with his usual end in mind.

Jemima is no young miss. She is twenty-nine and clearly on the shelf. She has come to this rather remote part of Kent with her brother, Terrence, Lord Troy, with whom she lives and whom she continues to take care of. Troy is a well-known poet, as well as a man about town. Jemima has enjoyed living with her brother, but she has come to recognize that her future prospects are less than rosy. She has always lived in Troy's shadow and feels increasingly unappreciated. She is perhaps readier than she thinks to become intrigued by a practiced flirt, especially as she comes to see that there is more beneath Bryce's surface than he lets the rest of the world see.

Butler enlivens her story with spies and smugglers and traitors, all of which are somehow related to the murder in the woods. But what remains central is the romance of Bryce and Jemima. As she falls more and more under his spell, he retreats from making her just one more conquest. Yet, even as Bryce's feelings change and deepen, he recognizes that he has nothing to offer Jemima except a soiled reputation and uncertain prospects.

Butler has created an attractive hero and heroine. Jemima is bright as well as beautiful and she rightly chafes under the restrictions society places on women. Bryce is an honorable dishonorable rogue of the best sort, a man who, condemned for an early mistake, has chosen to flout society's strictures. Butler has also provided a nice cast of secondary characters: the talented and lovely Lovelace, whose self-centered histrionics are just right for a precocious seventeen year old and the equally self-centered poet who doesn't even recognize how he takes his sister for granted. And Butler does a fine job with the mystery as well.

The Rake's Retreat has everything a Regency fan could want and then some. Butler has mastered both the period and her craft. She will have a most successful career as a Regency author, if only we can keep her.

--Jean Mason

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