The Rake’s Proposal
by Sarah Elliott
(Harlequin Historical, $5.50, PG) ISBN 0-373-29420-6
The Rake’s Proposal puts me in mind of the little girl with the curl, right in the middle of her forehead: when she was good, she was very good, and when she was bad she was horrid. ,p> The rake in question is Lord Benjamin Sinclair, infamous for his scandals, his breath-taking beauty, and his disregard for the good opinion of society. Unlike most in the ton, he not only makes money in trade, he is actually hands-on involved – scandalous! He owns a shipping company, but also frequently accompanies his crews on their trips, giving him the freedom he craves to explore and have adventures, to control his own life and destiny. He is pretty much beyond the pale, as far as polite society sees it, although he retains strong friendships among that group of unmarried, late-20s/early 30s boys that have yet to grow up crowd that litters the romance landscape. Ben shows up on the doorstep of one of his closest friends, Robert Sutcliff, after six months at sea and a night of partying, looking for a place to rest his weary head.

The door is answered not by Robert, but by his younger sister Katherine. Already 24, Kate is in town for her first season; it had been significantly delayed because she had been required to deal with the prolonged illness, and ultimate death, of their father. She is launching into the season with gusto, for she absolutely must have a husband – preferably a rather dim, agreeable and malleable one – post-haste. The need for this is tied directly to the reason for the delay of her debut: Kate was functioning not only as a dutiful daughter nursing an ailing parent, but as the actual brains behind the family company, Alfred and Sons, shipbuilders. Kate had shown an interest in and aptitude for the business since her earliest years, while Robert had not. She gradually assumed responsibility, until she was able to run the entire.

Finally, as a curse or a blessing, the business was left to her, but she can take possession only when married.

So Ben has no intention of getting married and settling down, and certainly no intention of despoiling his good friend’s sister: too bad she excites him like no woman ever has. And Katherine has no intention of marrying someone like Ben, who is as far from dim, agreeable and malleable as one could get, and not likely to be willing to move to Little Brookings in Dorset so his wife can run her business. But fate – in the shape of several obvious and increasingly dangerous attempts on Katherine’s life – throws the two together in increasingly compromising situations, until there is no choice left to them. They are left to make the best of a bad situation.

The “very good” part here is the characters: Ben, Katherine, Robert, his fiancée Charlotte, Charlotte’s mother (“Horse Face”), Katherine’s maid/companion Mary, etc. They are nicely and deeply developed, particularly for a book with so much going on and so many characters to cover. Ben is appropriately rakish, but not obnoxiously so – more like reflexively so. Given the opportunity and incentive to behave well, he does so. Katherine is practical, competent, intelligent, and understands that her unusual position vis-à-vis dad’s business could put her beyond the pale. She behaves appropriately to her understanding of her situation.

But…here we come to the “horrid” part – the plot is so dependent on the most unlikely of coincidences as to be a veritable house of cards. One suspicious huff-puff and the whole thing would collapse. In many places the story feels like one amazing coinky-dink after another, as both land literally on each other’s doorsteps. If you can just will your disbelief into submission, you might be able to make a go of this, but that’s a pretty tall order. Aside from the believability factor, there is also a smattering of the unlikely factor; everyone seems more willing than one would expect to allow Ben and Kate the benefit of the doubt after they have been caught in situations that one would expect to have led straight to the altar.

Aside from these flaws, it is a charming story with characters that one likes quite a lot and, as one does for one’s friends, wishes they were in a better situation.

--Laura Scott

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