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The Wary Widow by Barbara Hazard
(Signet, $4.99, G) ISBN 0-451-20131-0
Cornelia, the widowed Countess of Wyckend, is traveling to a remote convent in France in the company of her distant cousin, Alistair Russell. They must collect the orphaned young daughter of a relative and escort her back to England. But Napoleon is now on Elba and the place to be is Vienna, where the peace talks are taking place. After picking up young Lili, Alistair and Cornelia decide to travel to Austria.

Once in Vienna, Alistair quickly finds them accommodations at the opulent home of Alva Potter, a very wealthy widow who wishes to gain entrance into Society. Playing hostess to a countess and the sartorially splendid Mr. Russell will be quite a feather in her cap. Alistair and Cornelia attend balls and amuse the sheltered Lili with simple pleasures such as picnics in the park. Cornelia begins to fall for the handsome Alistair. Then she meets up with a figure from her past, a man who caused her unspeakable horror. A man who may have the same evil designs on Lili.

The Wary Widow is told in first person, from Cornelia's point of view. Unfortunately, Cornelia comes across as rather placid and uninteresting. Readers are never privy to Alistair's thoughts, but his character is delineated strongly, thanks to several well-written scenes in which he reveals his background and his frustration at being seen only as a handsome fop. Where Cornelia seems to drift, not quite knowing what to do with either Lili or Alistair, Alistair is a man of action. His actions bring him to life.

Some of Cornelia's actions are confusing. When she first meets Lili, Cornelia tells Alistair that she canít possibly take charge of the girl and she isn't sure where to send her. Since Cornelia is a wealthy widow with no children who possesses not only a London house but a large estate, this didn't seem to make much sense. There wasn't anything standing in the way of her offering Lili a home, other than it would cut into her own rather staid social life. It was a bit hard to admire her.

The Vienna setting offers a look into Regency life outside of London, and it was well-drawn and interesting. And the nasty villain is evil enough to make a reader's skin crawl. The inventive ending struck me as just right.

The Wary Widow offers up an intriguing hero, all the more so because he must reveal himself to us in layers. You'll get to know him well. While Cornelia makes less of an impression, this is diverting Regency read.

--Cathy Sova

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