Regency Christmas Spirits
by Nancy Butler, Emma Jensen, Edith Layton, Barbara Metzger and Andrea Pickens
(Signet, $6.99, PG) ISBN 0-451-20438-7
I always look forward to Signet’s Regency Christmas anthology, although I continue to wonder why the book always appears in October. Legendary editor Hilary Ross invariably gathers together the best of her Regency authors, present and past, for this annual offering. The theme this year is “spirits” and the stories offer a variety of interpretations thereof: fairy spirits, high spirits, ghostly spirits, spirituous spirits and a courageous spirit.

Nancy Butler gets into the spirit of things with “The Merry Wanderer.” Robin Goodfellow - otherwise known as Puck - has been sent in human form on a mission to the human world. The Lord or Lady of Islay have been the keepers of the Book of Trey for centuries. Should this tome fall into the wrong hands, the fairy world will be doomed. At the death of her father, Julia Fitzwalter has become the Lady of Islay and Titiana, Queen of the Fairies, has sent Robin to make sure that she can perform her duty or, if not, to find her a husband who will.

Robin worms his way into the Fitzwalter household and finds that Julia is hard pressed both by money troubles and by the impending arrival of her nasty cousin who is coming to claim the guardianship of her young brother and the estate. Robin discovers that another is also worried about Julia and trying to protect her, none other than Merlin. Clearly there is a threat to both the Lady of Islay and the book she is supposed to protect.

Butler has provided a most enjoyable fantasy romance, as Julia and Robin discover love amidst the danger. But can an immortal and a mortal find happiness? Well, of course they can!

The Honorable Elizabeth Fitzhollis is our courageous spirit. Emma Jensen introduces us to this lovely young woman who is absolutely devoted to her beloved home, Hollymore, despite the fact that it is literally falling down around her. But her odious cousin Percy who inherited the pile when her father died, has sold the place to an English duke who plans to pull it down and build a hunting lodge.

When the duke’s emissary (and his brother, although Elizabeth doesn’t realize this) arrives, Elizabeth tries to convince him that the place is worth saving. Captain Lord Rhys Edward-Jones has come to Ireland for his brother. Recently retired after a distinguished naval career, he is happy for something to occupy his time. He is not happy with Hollymore, nor do all of Elizabeth’s efforts to convince him otherwise do much good. On the other hand, he can’t help but admire a young woman who is so devoted to her home that she personally repairs roofs and drainage ditches.

Jensen once again uses an Irish setting to good advantage. The romance that develops between the lively Elizabeth and the staid Rhys is delightful. And the unexpected epilogue provides a nice touch. Will Hollymore be saved? Of course it will.

Spirituous spirits are at the centerpiece of Edith Layton’s entry. Arabella Danton has been sent to London by her wicked stepmother to find a husband but the usually lively young lady finds ton parties overwhelming. When her brother offers her a glass of brandy before one such outing, she discovers the secret to success and before long, she is the toast of the ton.

Rupert Aldrich - rich, clever and influential - is sent by his worried family to determine if Arabella is serious about his sober cousin Michael. Rupert finds the young lady he meets in daylight both sweet and amusing. He begins to think of settling down. But the daytime Arabella and the Arabella he sees at parties seem somehow different. He discovers her secret and fears for her future. Can love solve Arabella’s problem? Of course it can.

Barbara Metzger provides a delightful ghost story in “The Christmas Curse.” Centuries ago, Sir Olnic and Lady Edryth were condemned to spend their afterlives in Worth Keep until one of their descendants placed her missing wedding ring on the finger of the woman he loved. Only at Christmas time can the two try to achieve this goal, so Christmas is a haunted time at Worth Keep.

The current Lord Worth has come home this Christmas to escape his unhappy memories. Wounded and scarred by the war, he has no expectation of marrying or of finding happiness. But thanks to the machinations of the resident ghosts, the lovely young widow Amelia Merriot comes to stay at Worth Keep. Her life as the unpaid companion to the demanding Lady Rostend is not a happy one and as she gets to know his lordship, she begins to dream of something else. But will he fall in love with her and will the ring be discovered and will he place it on her finger? Of course he will.

Andrea Pickens has created a heroine full of high spirits, too full of them. Lady Emma Pierson, daughter of a duke and a toast of the ton, has become all too accustomed to having her own way. When her thoughtlessness leads to a fall from her horse, she finds herself immured in the home of Noel Trumbull, the new Lord Kirkland. Noel has come to Hawthorne Hall with his recently widowed sister and her son. Newly retired from the army, he has no patience with the spoiled and willful Lady Emma.

Emma is stunned to discover a man who does not immediately fall at her feet and, as she examines her behavior through his eyes, she comes to understand how sterile her own life has become. Noel discovers that beneath Emma’s brittle facade, there is in fact a woman as lovely on the inside as she is on the outside. Can these two seemingly mismatched people find true love at Christmastide? Of course they can.

All five of these stories are the work of talented authors who use the conventions of the Regency romance and a Christmas setting to provide entertaining and enjoyable romances. As is almost always the case, the Signet Regency Christmas anthology showcases these authors’ ability to tell a good tale. There is not a disappointing story in the bunch.

--Jean Mason

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