Secrets of a Proper Countess
by Lecia Cornwall
(Avon, $7.99, PG-13) ISBN 978-0-06-201893-9
*****
The dowdy and proper widow, Lady Isobel Maitland is transformed and set free in Secrets of a Proper Countess, and itís a beautiful thing.

Lady Isobel is trapped in a prim and regulated life by her deceased husbandís mother and brother. When Lord Robert Maitland died unexpectedly, he left a will stating that his brother Charles was to have control of the Maitland family estates until his son Robin was old enough to assume their care. Robert also willed that his mother, Honoria was to ensure that Isobelís conduct was always in keeping with the Maitland family reputation after his death, or she would lose Robin completely. Honoria and Charles were also named as Robinís guardians.

Isobel was surprised and heartbroken by Robertís will, but she also knew that her arranged marriage was loveless, so she didnít really expect Robert to ensure that her needs were met after death. Isobel decided long ago to honor the Maitlandís strict rules so that she and Robin could see each other daily. However, she never thought that they would constantly spy on her to make sure that she follows their very strict dictates on proper behavior, which tells her what to wear (half-mourning in spinsterish cuts and cheap fabrics), when she can see and what she can do with Robin (going to the park is quite nearly forbidden as the boy may get dirty), and who she can be friends with (no one is acceptable thus far). Isobelís intelligence and wit only allow her the occasional respite from the Maitlandís dominance, and she treasures her modiste who will charge her for flannel and give her silk nightgowns.

Isobelís secret choice of sleepwear is easy enough to keep, but one night at a masquerade, she lets herself give into the pure temptation of a tryst with the most obvious rake in the room, the Marquess of Blackwood. Isobel has watched Phineas Archer from the wallflower corner at many events since sheís been allowed into half mourning, but she never expected him to pay any attention to her. However, unchaperoned for once, costumed, masked, and with a false name, she has the need to prove that sheís more than just a plain doormat of a woman. She and Phineas have a pleasurable interlude, and she expects that he will forget her and move onto his usual parade of women.

What Isobel doesnít know is that Phineas has a well kept secret, he easily plays the rake and engages in debauchery in public as a ruse to hide his employment as a spy for the England. Phineas is very good at disguising himself as the most disgusting rake in the room, earning the confidence of every scandalous lord. He knows that itís easy to learn the secrets of others when they think that you are in league with them. Phineas attends the masquerade party looking for information on the whereabouts of the lord of the manor when he runs into the masked Lady Isobel. Phineas doesnít know who she is at all, which is strange considering that he knows most of the high society English ladies. He makes it his mission to find out who she is, as she may be involved in the plot against the throne, and he would also like to see her again if she isnít.

Secrets of a Proper Countess is a gorgeous written, gently wistful love story, and I thought it was fabulous.

Cornwallís writing style is so beautiful, she has a way of phrasing dialogue and background story just the right way. Her characterís interactions change pace depending on the moment, the dialogue heats and cools in perfect time. Every so often, an author has a way of turning a phrase that sticks with the reader in a perfect a-ha moment and Cornwall definitely has this gift,

Onto the characters: Phineas Archer is one delicious, determined man that any woman would love to have on their trail. At once sensitive, passionate, stubborn and honorable, Phin is multifaceted and fascinating. Heís an assault to the senses, handsome, commanding, and intelligent.

Lady Isobel Maitland, how I loved you. Sometimes I merely put up with missish, annoying, cowardly heroines because the heroes are so hot, but Isobel puts this tale right in the spotlight on my keeper shelf. Isobelís been neatly trapped into a tricky, tight spot but she refuses to act out childishly against her jailers. She uses her intellect to amuse herself during dull dinner conversation, she keeps her femininity alive amid yards of cheap, ugly fabric,, and she knows that her son is the primary reason that she suffers the slings and arrows directed at her by Robertís will. Her passionate nature spirals out of hand when she lets it rule her, and afterwards her self image is truly unveiled through her well catalogued thoughts.

Isobel has a way of being everywoman, by virtue of the fact that we have all had times when we have put our needs and desires aside for other responsibilities. Lady Isobel manages to be the essence of a woman while maintaining her prim exterior for the most part, much to my delight. Getting to know Isobel is a little like knowing whatís inside the wrapped box at Christmas, and still being excited to be a part of the great secret.

Secrets of a Proper Countess was a lovely read, and you should do yourself a favor and pick up a copy Ė when you have time to indulge yourself.

--Amy Wroblewsky


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