My Lady's Temptation

The Warrior's Damsel

The Warrior's Game

Almost Perfect by Denise Hampton
(Avon, $5.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-06-050911-2
Although a pleasant enough meal, this book was too much salad and not enough meat for my taste.

With her family verging on destitution, thanks to her father’s compulsive gambling, Cassandra Marston is relieved to get an invitation to a house party in Scotland. Cassie, her father and her younger sister, Eliza, will travel north and stay with her aunt (actually the aunt of Cassie’s late husband) while they attend the festivities at a nearby estate.

Just as they are about to leave London, however, Lord Bucksden, an infamous cad, arrives and claims the prize he won from Cassie’s father in a card game the previous evening: Eliza.

Panicking, Cassie brains Bucksden with a vase. Leaving him for dead, the family flees to Scotland. Unfortunately, in the turmoil of their hasty departure, Cassie drops the invitation near Bucksden’s body.

In Scotland, Cassie – who is as skilled at cards as her father is inept – hopes to quietly win enough money by gambling with the other guests to buy passage to America where her family can start again.

Unbeknownst to Cassie, someone else who has a history with Bucksden will be at Ryecroft’s party. Lucien Hollier badly needs an heir for his Barony. He thought he had achieved his goal, then discovered that his wife’s pregnancy was the result of a liaison with the despicable Bucksden. Now, Lucien is searching for a new wife to bear him a child, preferably someone plain who will not attract the amorous attentions of rakes.

But Lucien’s search is disrupted by the appearance of a woman who had bewitched him six years earlier, the woman he thought to marry until he realized that such a union would give him responsibility for her impecunious father.

Of course, the woman is Cassie, and, in spite of the changes six years have wrought, the two remain powerfully attracted.

I found this book generally enjoyable. Ms. Hampton has an engaging writing style with a natural rhythm that’s easy to fall into. The main characters are likable and appealing if not particularly unique or vivid. I appreciated the low-key way Cassie and Lucien reacted to some key revelations, eschewing tantrums and melodramatics, and I liked the way both characters kept finding excuses to remain together, even as they wondered why the other was not being completely honest. I also liked the fact that Cassie’s unusual skill with cards was seamlessly crucial to the story.

I did think there were some problems, though, which prevented me from enjoying it even more.

The story does not really begin, in my opinion, until nearly halfway through the book when Cassie relieves Lucien of a large sum of money in a card game and sets in motion a series of events that result in her pretending to have amnesia. This is not a spoiler, by the way - this information is clearly stated on the book’s cover. Obviously, I’m not the only one who thought this was where things started to get interesting.

This means that the first half of the book, while not bad reading, is basically appetizer. It takes so long to reach the main course that, instead of a natural development, it feels like an abrupt change in direction, almost a completely different story.

I also have to mention that the consummation of Lucien and Cassie’s relationship happened in a way that was guaranteed to throw me abruptly out of the relationship. She sustains a painful injury in a carriage accident, and later they have ecstatic sex in spite of the fact that, while they make love “pain sliced through her as she bent her knee.” I am astonished when authors insist on trying to force me to believe that the sex is so transcendent it overcomes even agonizing pain.

Ms. Hampton also found it difficult to maintain her pace all the way to the end. For example, just as the story should be hurtling to the climax, everything stops for several pages while Lucien recaps the story for his friend.

There’s definite entertainment here, and a good idea for a book, but with so much more filler than substance, it falls short of ‘almost perfect.’

-- Judi McKee

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