The Wily Wastrel by April Kihlstrom
(Signet, $4.99, PG) ISBN 0-451-19820-4
When I began April Kihlstrom’s new Regency romance, I was convinced that I was going to enjoy it immensely. After all, I liked the hero and heroine and the plot -- a “forced” marriage -- is one of my favorites. But while I continued to like the hero and heroine, I found the secondary plot simply too contrived and improbable, which led me to the three heart rating you see above.

The “wily wastrel” of the title is the Honorable James Langford, younger brother of the Earl of Darton (and of the hero of Kihlstrom’s last book, The Reckless Barrister). James has a reputation in the ton of being a bit of a dandy and an inveterate gambler. In fact, his gambling is undertaken to hide his deep, dark secret. James is an inventor of some note and his inventions have brought him a most comfortable income. But this connection with “trade” would bring disgrace to his family if known. Hence his pretense.

One evening at a ball, James undertakes an act of kindness. He asks Miss Juliet Galsworthy to dance when he spies her among the wallflowers. During the dance, James discovers that when Juliet smiles she is truly lovely. He also discovers that she has a sharp mind behind all her improbable ringlets.

Juliet’s mother is ecstatic that the fashionable Mr. Langford has singled out her daughter. She had despaired of ever marrying her off. After all, Juliet looks rather foolish in the bows and furbelows that Mrs. Galsworthy insists she wear. But worse, Juliet too has a secret. She has a passion for things mechanical!

When James finds himself -- somewhat to his own surprise -- pursuing the acquaintance by taking Juliet for a drive, he is stung by her assumption that he is a worthless fribble. So he takes her to his workshop. The two kindred spirits become so involved in tinkering with James’ “toys,” that before they know it, they have passed the whole night so engrossed and, to save Juliet’s reputation, James immediately proposes marriage.

As I suggested above, I found both James and Juliet immensely attractive and interesting characters. Both are at odds with society’s expectations, yet they stumble on to their true soul-mate. I was truly looking forward to watching them work out their relationship.

To a certain extent, I was not disappointed. Kihlstrom does a fine job in describing the couple’s discovery of the sexual side of marriage, taking full advantage of the possibilities inherent in two intelligent young people who are relative strangers navigate these potentially difficult waters.

Then, things went awry, at least for me. The secondary plot involves James’ military brother asking him to devise a method of sending signals to France. It also pulls James’ newspaper writing sister-in-law into the plot; the messages to be sent by James’ invention will be encoded into her articles. And before we are done, we have run-ins with pirates, mysterious messages, and all sorts of other improbable events. And we have both James and Juliet behaving in ways that belie their undoubted intelligence.

I realize that almost every romance novel needs a secondary plot to keep the action moving. But I really wish Kihlstrom had provided a storyline which depended less on derring-do and more on the unusual qualities and capabilities of her hero and heroine.

Still, there was much to like in The Wily Wastrel. I enjoyed meeting the characters from the previous book once again. The three younger Langford brothers pledged never to marry at the beginning of The Reckless Barrister. Two down and one to go. I will certainly be reading The Sentimental Soldier in January to see how Harry meets his fate.

--Jean Mason

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