Scandalous Virtue by Brenda Hiatt
(Harper, $5.99, PG-13)ISBN 0-06-101379
Scandalous Virtue is my kind of romance: this book is charming, lighthearted fun. In addition, it has just enough bite to hold your interest for four hundred pages.

Simply put, Nessa Haughton is sick to death of being good. Her father was well known for being puritanical and proper; her late husband was more of the same. Now that she's on her own, Nessa intends to behave as she chooses.

Her first act of rebellion, and freedom, is to sneak out of her sister's house to attend a masquerade. Dressed as woman of easy virtue, Nessa meets a most interesting man with brilliant blue eyes. A man who seems like just the sort of fellow she needs to teach her how to be less than circumspect. She tells him her name is Monique; she dances with him and kisses him, then she flees without ever revealing her identity.

A rake of the first water, Jack Ashecroft, Marquis of Foxhaven, has decided to mend his ways. No more masquerades and kisses from pretty pieces of fluff. The only person who ever loved him, his grandfather, has reached beyond the grave and sent Jack a letter imploring him to become the kind of man others can respect.

Jack wants to honor his grandfather's request, but he has his work cut out for him. Jack's convinced that his only way of regaining his place in Society is to marry a woman above reproach. In fact, his steward informs Jack that marrying a woman with an unimpeachable reputation is about the only way he will trust Jack with the money to run his estate.

Since Jack doesn't find the idea of a virgin innocent to be very appealing, his friends inform about a lovely young widow who would meet his needs perfectly. They assure him that Lady Haughton's reputation and background are squeaky clean and much admired by Society.

After Jack meets the pretty widow, with the very familiar brown eyes, he decides to act quickly in proclaiming his suit. Nessa instantly recognizes Jack as the man with the blue eyes she kissed at the masquerade. Despite her attraction to Jack, Nessa wants nothing to do with marriage she's been there and done that and has no intention of ever doing it again.

For Nessa, matrimony is a trap to be carefully avoided. A seasoned campaigner, Jack has no intention of giving up his battle for Nessa's hand. Nor does he hesitate to blackmail "Monique" into looking favorably upon his suit.

Scandalous Virtue is an enjoyable Regency romp. The manners and mannerisms of the time are handled deftly by Ms. Hiatt. I found Nessa's desire for freedom and fun to be very compelling, in light of her strict upbringing.

Marrying Jack means Nessa will be forfeiting her newly prized freedom. This conflict provides some interesting bumps along the road to romance for these two. I also enjoyed Nessa's attempts to help her sister Prudence improve her marriage by becoming less of a puritan and more of a wife to her loving husband.

--Judith Flavell

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