A Most Reckless Lady
by Sandy Hingston
(Dell, $5.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-440-23368-7
****
Don't be put off by this book's silly (and most non-descriptive) title, overblown cover art (lots of naked skin and roses galore), or the purple prose of the blurb on the back cover. Apparently the folks at Dell don't subscribe to the less-is-more philosophy. What's inside is lots better than you'd guess from the cover. It would be a shame if readers skipped this book simply because whoever designed it had a major attack of bad taste.

At the behest of a dead friend, Lucas Kimball Strathmere, Earl of Somerleigh, goes to a small village in Russia to locate Tatiana, whose existence was previously unknown to him. Tatiana is betrothed to the most eligible male in the village and is very content with her situation. Lucas, however, is not the only person who is seeking out Tatiana's whereabouts. Men who have followed Lucas set fire to the village and massacre all its inhabitants. Only Lucas and Tatiana manage to escape.

Lucas brings Tatiana back to his English country estate where he has been avoiding society and devoting himself to the cultivation of varieties of roses since his ill-fated romance with Lady Gillian Innisford. He has some idea that Tatiana can be turned into a housemaid. Because Tatiana speaks only Russian and is ignorant of English customs, both Lucas and his staff find her unmanageable. At his wits' end, he finally contacts his mother and entreats her to take on Tatiana's training. Dulcibella, the countess, takes Tatiana off to the Cotswolds.

A year and a half later Lucas is stunned to discover that he is giving a party that will introduce Tatiana to local society. To his amazement, Dulcie has achieved great success in her instruction; Tatiana is now a beautiful, accomplished young woman. She has learned to read and is conversant on a number of subjects including English literature and politics. (Curiously, she also seems to have learned to read Russian even though no one else around knows the language. The Cyrillic alphabet must be easier than I'd believed.) Lucas announces his intention of making a settlement on her so that she can make a desirable marriage.

Tatiana, however, is secretly not so agreeable about this stated goal. She hates Lucas for the destruction of her village and the end of her dreams of marriage to her Russian love. She goes along with Lucas and his mother's plans only to have her revenge on him.

The three of them go to Brighton where they are welcomed into the highest levels of society. Lucas has been forgiven for his scandalous past in great part because he's rich, titled, and single and there are too many unmarried daughters around. Lady Gillian is also in residence in Brighton which stimulates gossip.

But events begin to occur that cast a shadow on their social successes. Tatiana comes to the notice of the Regent as well as to dangerous elements who seemed determined to kill her. What is the secret in Tatiana's past that threatens her life and happiness?

The basic plot of this book heroine discovered in deprived circumstances, taken up by rich hero, blossoms into admired beauty, turns out to be lost heiress or of noble origins has roots back to the ancient Pygmalion legend. (No, Barbara Cartland didn't dream it up although she certainly used it often enough.) Just because a plot's got legs doesn't mean that it's used up. Ms. Hingston shows that an oldie-but-goodie can still prove most entertaining when crafted by a creative author.

What raises this plot from a lame retread are the characters.

Lucas is no ambitionless, dissolute aristocrat with a history of sleazy liaisons behind him. He's served his country during the war with France. He's a loyal and trustworthy friend. He's honorable, skillful, intelligent. (And he's not above asking Mummy for help when he needs it!) His over-long devotion to Lady Gillian seems unreasonable once we discover the kind of woman she really is, but, remember, he was young and impressionable back then. Besides, it shows that Lucas isn't a superficial, class-conscious snob. Lucas's friend chose wisely when he entrusted Tatiana to him.

Tatiana is similarly loyal and intelligent. She's intelligent enough that she doesn't fall into the classic hating-the-hero trap. (Don't you wonder why a hero would care for a woman who's constantly declaring she hates him?) When Tatiana's familiar enough with Lucas to judge him for more than bringing disaster to her village, she recognizes that he's a good man and comes to admire him. She's also adventuresome, sometimes stupidly so, but she's not content to be one of those passive, let-the-guy-do-it heroines. This is a rollicking good tale primarily because Tatiana is a woman of action. She chafes when she's not able to do something.

Besides being good themselves, Lucas and Tatiana are good for each other. By the end of the book, they've both matured. (Although I still think the eighteen-month transformation from illiterate Russian peasant girl to elegant English society miss is more than slightly unrealistic.) Rather than instantaneous attraction, they discover each other gradually ... and believably.

The secondary characters, particularly Lucas's mother, are also well-drawn. Dulcie's sometimes shallow (and even contemptible) behavior is understandable if not admirable.

Balanced against its many virtues, the book's flaws, including the contrived explanation of why the bad guys are trying to kill Tatiana, are easily forgiven. This is an entertaining book with lively characters.

Ignore the cover and enjoy.

--Lesley Dunlap


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