Gallant Waif

The Perfect Rake

Tallie's Knight

 
The Perfect Waltz
by Anne Gracie
(Berkley Sensation, $7.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-425-20680-7
*****
At the risk of sounding like a burbling fangirl, I have to say that Anne Grace has written a terrific follow-up to The Perfect Rake. In fact, The Perfect Waltz features an even stronger hero, and a heroine whose unexpected depths will take readers by surprise. Itís one of the best Regency-set historicals Iíve read in years, with a beautifully-developed love story at the center.

Sebastian Reyne is cousin to an earl, but the Reyne family doesnít recognize him. Rumor has it heís illegitimate; at any rate, his wealth has been made in trade. Sebastian has a difficult past partly spent in child labor, and he has only recently found his long-lost younger sisters, who were separated from him when they were infants. Now heís trying to make a home for young Cassie and Dorie, but Cassie is a fourteen-year-old hellion who carries a knife strapped to her thigh, and twelve-year-old Dorie wonít speak. Desperate, Sebastian decides to marry a woman of impeccable character, one who can give his sisters the upbringing they lack and the entry into Society they deserve. His choice: drab Lady Elinor Whitelaw, whose life is focused on doing Good Works with indigent and orphan girls.

In London to woo Lady Elinor, Sebastian is instantly smitten with a vivacious young lady he spies across a ballroom. Miss Hope Merridew is all that Lady Elinor is not: pretty, charming, and full of the joy of life. Sebastian tries to dismiss her as a spoiled debutante, but finds he canít seem to put her out of his thoughts. Their first dance together is a disaster, with Sebastian stiff and tongue-tied and Hope wondering why this handsome man will barely speak to her. And why is he so magnetically attractive?

Hopeís past has been difficult as well. Her upbringing under her abusive grandfatherís thumb only ended when her older sister, Prudence, escaped to London with her sisters (see The Perfect Rake). With Prudence and Charity now married to wealthy peers, Hopeís misery is behind her. Her loving Great-Uncle Oswald and Aunt Gussie have welcomed the Merridew girls with open arms, and she dreams of finding a man who will love her wholeheartedly, one with whom she can share a perfect waltz. Could Sebastian Reyne be that man?

Sebastian and Hope meet again in the park, where Hope is practicing riding tricks. She draws him like a moth to a flame, and as much as Sebastian knows sheís not the woman he came to London to court, his heart tells him otherwise. He attempts to distance himself from Hope by telling her itís Lady Elinor heís pursuing, but then finds he canít bear to lose Hopeís company. Sebastian and Hope begin a tentative friendship that blossoms into something strong and supportive, a friendship Sebastian will need when his young sisters end up in London and need a friend. Hopeís twin, Faith, and their younger sister, the irrepressible Grace, band together to help the Reyne girls. Hopeís kindness to his sisters is the final straw. Sebastian can no longer deny it Ė itís Hope who has captured his heart.

Sebastian Reyne is about as unique a hero as readers are likely to find. Ms. Gracie employs a little-used but realistic aspect of Regency society Ė that money could open doors, and many members of the ton were willing to overlook a pedigree if a manís pockets were full enough. The author takes no shortcuts with this, either. An earldom does not magically fall into Sebastianís lap Ė his character is established early on, and itís this man Hope falls in love with. His life has been so hard and joyless that itís easy to believe Hope would live up to her name and bring a new sense of happiness to Sebastian and his sisters.

Hope, lovely though she is on the outside, sees herself as the clumsy sister, always doing something awkward or inappropriate Ė a legacy from her demeaning grandfather. Other than riding and dancing, she doesnít feel particularly adept at anything, and sheís as astonished as anyone at the effect she has on Sebastian, and that of Sebastian on her. Readers may be as frustrated as Hope with Sebastianís initial stiffness and reticence, but as he gradually unbends in her company and they begin to really talk, a wonderful romance unfolds before the readerís eyes. These two characters are a perfect match.

A secondary romance between Lady Elinor and an unlikely suitor adds a nice touch to the story, and itís fun to watch the starchy Elinor begin to question her own repressed upbringing. Unhappy childhoods are a theme here, and as Hope states late in the story,

ĒIf one thing is clear to me, itís that none of us had enough fun when we were children, so it is our duty to make up for it now.Ē

And make up for it they do, with a sexual attraction that builds to a sizzle. Sebastian takes the high road until Hope forces his hand, and then their relationship takes a steamy turn. It was well-done and didnít feel gratuitous at all.

Itís going to be a long, impatient wait for the next book in this series, which isnít due out until next summer. In the meantime, Iíll be re-reading The Perfect Waltz and enjoying this delicious story. Please, Ms. Gracie, write fast!

--Cathy Sova


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