Rules of Engagement
by Kathryn Caskie
(Warner Forever, $5.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-446-61423-8
*****
Caskie has written a debut novel that is full of life, love and various antics. In the style of a Julia Quinn, there are two romances with wit, humor and characters that a reader can enjoy.

Rules of Engagement refers to a war strategy book that Letitia and Viola Featherton are anxious to use to help their two great-nieces find spouses in their come-out season. These two ladies are spinsters and believe their father purchased this book to help them in their season, a season that was never seen due to deaths and other circumstances. Now they are determined that Eliza and Grace Merriweather not only experience a season, but find suitable husbands before its end.

Grace, the younger sister, is ready, willing and able. She is determined to find a spouse and does so in an old acquaintance. But he is now the Earl of Hawksmoor and she must gain his mother’s approval, and this is not easy. Grace’s story is really the secondary tale and while engaging, it is not the main event.

That distinction falls to Eliza’s activities. Eliza is a painter and her dream is to go to Italy and learn from the masters there. She has agreed to this season only for Grace’s benefit. She is determined she will not marry and has worked hard to get her portfolio together. At the end of the season, she can claim her small inheritance and then she is off. But her Great-Aunts and the 16 rules of engagement say otherwise.

Magnus MacKinnon has inherited the title of Earl of Somerton from his brother, he also inherited a non-entailed estate and a ton of debts. While he invested in some shipping ventures, they have not come to port. He must marry an heiress by the end of the season or lose all. He doesn’t care about the estate but he does care about the crofters who are dependent on him.

Magnus and Eliza meet and are instantly attracted. Their meetings are fun, are full of conversation and both realize how compatible they are. Lust plays a part, but is not the abiding emotion. Eliza convinces Magnus that they can thwart her aunts and help him at the same time. She will paint his portrait (which she is dying to do), he will act as her suitor (which will get the aunts off her back) and she can investigate heiresses he is interested in to help him decide on a bride. Magnus agrees, primarily because he enjoys her company and wants to spend time with her.

The aunts meanwhile are determined to use their rules to advance this romance. It is downright fun to watch their wiles and Eliza’s wits spar in the many entanglements they all find themselves. Rules such as “use diversion to distract opposing forces” and “use bait to draw him into secure ground” all provide adventures with outcomes that neither can predict. Caskie uses this plot device well.

At times, there are the misunderstandings that thwart many a tale, but Caskie did not fall into the trap of making that the primary device used. Grace is a little of an uneven character, at times seemingly only concerned with her own welfare and then plotting with her aunts to help Eliza. Her love interest is the least of the characters, but enough of his demeanor comes through that you are glad he and Grace are a pair. The story starts to drag just about two thirds of the way in, as if Caskie isn’t sure how to bring things to an end, but it recovers nicely.

Magnus is a man who is not afraid of love, of pitting his wits against Eliza and who is willing to work for his livelihood. When it appears he will lose his estate, he pulls up his boot straps and decides he will work for a living on a small property left him by his mother. He is a refreshing hero – part Scottish highlander and part English lord. He and Eliza are well matched in intelligence, humor and in the bedroom.

Rules of Engagement was published in May, so a reader may have to hunt for it in stores. It is well worth the hunt, however, and Kathryn Caskie is a name to keep an eye on in the future.

--Shirley Lyons


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