Gallant Waif

Tallie's Knight

The Perfect Rake by Anne Gracie
(Berkley, $7.99, PG) ISBN 0-425-20395-6
The Perfect Rake is the first chance Iíve had to read one of Anne Gracieís books, and I hope I donít mow anybody down trying to get to her backlist. With just one story, she has moved straight to my ďauto-buyĒ list. This book is fabulous.

Prudence Merridew and her four younger sisters have lived under their cruel, domineering grandfatherís rule for years, since the death of their parents. One day Prudence comes to the defense of the youngest, Grace, as sheís being savagely whipped for drawing Egyptian designs on a reticule for Prudence. In the ensuing struggle, the grandfather falls down the stairs, breaking several bones and knocking himself out. Prudence hastily packs her sisters and two loyal servants and heads for London and their Great-Uncle Oswald.

Charity, Faith, Hope, and Grace will come under Prudenceís guardianship in a few weeks when she turns twenty-one, and if they can engineer a decent marriage for just one of the older girls, their financial straits will be solved as well. Prudence has forged a letter from their grandfather to his estranged brother, asking Oswald to find the girls decent, sober husbands, and none of that frivolity nonsense like balls or parties. Great Uncle Oswald turns out to be a kindly, genial type who is happy to thwart his brother and introduce the girls into Society. However, he decides that Prudence must find a husband first, as nobody is likely to notice her plump, plain appearance once her beautiful sisters make their come-out.

Prudence, who is secretly engaged to a young man named Phillip, panics and declares she is already engaged to the Duke of Dinstable, a notorious hermit whose name she overheard. True, she hasnít heard from Phillip in six months, and since heís been in India for the past four years she has no way of knowing if heís still alive. But she is betrothed, and she canít allow her sisters to be held back. Unfortunately for Prudence, the Duke has returned to London in search of a wife, and Great-Uncle Oswald immediately decides to go and look him over.

Prudence manages to beat Great-Uncle Oswald to the Dukeís house, where she confesses her problem Ė but to the wrong man. Gideon, Lord Carradice, is the Dukeís cousin, and heís charmed and intrigued by Prudence. He plays along with the charade until they are both exposed, and even then he finds a way to save the day, but not before stealing an unexpectedly hot kiss (and being clonked over the head with the Egyptian reticule). His interest is piqued, to say the least, and he decides to call on Prudence. By the time Gideon and Prudence extricate themselves from their nonexistent ďengagementĒ, Gideon is half in love with the indomitable Prudence and ready to make the engagement real. Prudence, aware of Gideonís reputation as a womanizing rake, canít believe heíd really be interested in her when her beautiful sisters are at hand.

There are many, many scenes in this book that will have you grinning, if not laughing out loud. Anne Gracie must have had fun changing the tone from desperation and darkness to hope and laughter, and her most effective vehicle is the youngest Merridew, ten-year-old Grace. In their first meeting, Grace interrogates Gideon about his treatment of Prudence and ends up kicking him in both shins, only to stop when Gideon reveals that he thinks Prudence is lovely.

ĒGrandpapa used to call me a limb of Satan,Ē she confided.

He eyed the offending foot pointedly. ďPerfectly understandable. And that would be the limb he meant, Iím sure.Ē

Grace, whom Gideon has now christened The Limb, is as natural a child as anyone could wish, in any story. Gideon, who has never fallen in love with a woman, is simply wonderful. His treatment of Prudence is honest; he truly sees her as lovely, and his lighthearted teasing and compliments are the perfect antidotes to her years of worry and desperation. Prudence is intelligent, honest, and loyal, perhaps to a fault. Sheís a fine complement to Gideon, and their romance is endearing with a healthy dose of sizzle under the surface.

The grandfather re-enters the plot about halfway through, a move I appreciated because it didnít play out the way I thought it would. Gideonís maneuvering to help the Merridews and throw the grandfather off the track allows their relationship to deepen, and a secondary romance between Charity and the real Duke plays out well. Gideon and his cousin are good friends of long standing, and their trust in each other allows several key plot points to move forward in a natural fashion. It would have been easy for the story to slip into melodrama, as the grandfather is so patently deranged. But right up to the final climax, heís relegated to the background. And when we finally discover Gideonís background, and the reason for the Dukeís hermitage, itís poignant. They need the Merridews as much as the Merridews need them.

There are several sex scenes near the very end of the story, and these just didnít seem to work well. They felt obligatory, as if the page count was running out and nobody had hit the sheets yet, so the author employs a rather shopworn device to engineer this. It didnít sit as well as the rest of the story, but itís a small point in an otherwise stellar read.

I canít recommend The Perfect Rake highly enough. The engrossing plot, the wonderful hero and heroine, and the lively cast of enjoyable secondary characters make this a book not to be missed. Gideon and Prudence will steal your hearts, and Grace and Great-Uncle Oswald are sure to leave you smiling. Best of all, itís the first of a series about the Merridew sisters. Iíll be waiting impatiently, and in the meantime, finding that backlist!

Cathy Sova

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