A Compromising Situation

Under the Kissing Bough

 
Proper Conduct by Shannon Donnelly
(Zebra Regency, $4.99, G) ISBN 0-821-77106-X
***
Penelope Harwood has reason to be apprehensive when Lord Nevin and his cousin Bryn Dawes arrive unexpectedly at her family’s home. The previous Lord Nevin had lured her father into a disastrous investment scheme. Penelope handles the family account books and knows well the pitiful state of their finances. Through one bad investment after another, Mr. Harwood has led his family, invalid wife and three daughters, into near-penury. His newest plan to restore the family fortune is through stud fees to be earned by the untamed stallion he’s hopefully but unwisely purchased from the neighboring squire. Penelope fears the current Lord Nevin is like his late uncle and wants to propose yet another disastrous scheme.

Nevin is half-gypsy, and he blames Penelope’s manner on her contempt for his mixed heritage, a reaction he’s encountered frequently at society functions. He’s actually there to rectify his uncle’s misdeed. He wants Harwood to invest in a scheme that will allow him to repair the older man’s fortunes.

Penelope’s conduct is partly concern that her father may fall victim to another Dawes swindle and another part reserve around men following a broken engagement. Penelope and Jonathan had been engaged to marry, but he ended it when he learned of her father’s financial reversals even though she allowed it to be spread that she was the one who cried off. Penelope knows that she’s not as beautiful as her younger sisters and too tall to interest a man. She is facing imminent spinsterhood.

A surprise rainstorm turns a brief visit into an overnight stay for the Dawes cousins. When Nevin learns of the wild stallion, the visit is extended indefinitely; Nevin, who is experienced with handling horses, will train the stallion so that it can be put to stud. With the longer stay, Nevin will have an opportunity to pierce Penelope’s reserve.

As I read Proper Conduct, I had the sensation that I was reading a sequel. There are frequent mentions of Nevin’s sister and brother-in-law and hints of a lost heir story, all of which seem to imply a previous story that introduced these characters. A check of the author’s website ( established that this is a stand-alone book or at the least the first in a series of interrelated stories. (The author has used connected titles in an earlier series, and her next book is A Proper Mistress which may indicate a link.) I found this coming-in-at-the-middle feeling disconcerting, and this was one factor in my three-heart rating.

Besides the romance between Nevin and Penelope, there is a secondary romance between Cecila, the Harwood middle sister, and Bryn Dawes that threatens to overshadow the main romance. Cecila has believed that she will marry Theo Winslow, the squire’s son. She knows he has faults but believes they can be remedied with proper management. Bryn, who is an aspiring but untalented poet, knows that Theo is all wrong for her. Raised believing he was heir to a title, Bryn now faces a life with no title, no fortune. He is, however, without bitterness for his change in status and is trying to determine the course his future should take. There’s a sweetness in this romance that is lacking in the one between the more angsty Nevin and Penelope.

An additional subplot concerns the Harwood treasure which has been missing since the English Civil War. Countless searches have failed to reveal its location, but finding it could restore the Harwood fortune. There’s not much substance to this subplot, but it does provide an excuse for an amusing first chapter.

Even though it features a wounded hero and heroine, Proper Conduct is fairly light entertainment. Readers who are looking for a book that doesn’t require much emotional involvement may find this Regency romance to their liking.

--Lesley Dunlap


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