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To Catch a Scoundrel
by Martha Kirkland
(Signet, $4.99, G) ISBN 0-451-19780-1
****
To Catch a Scoundrel was a one-sitting read, always a good sign for a Regency. Eugenia Bailey is the daughter of a very minor not-quite-nobleman, and since the death of her parents she has been employed as an instructress in a second-rate school for young ladies. This after suffering the charity of her aunt and cousin, who were always quick to point out that she was never really a member of the family. Now one of the cousins has disgraced himself by losing ten thousand pounds at the card tables, and Eugenia has a plan to win back the money and rub her aunt's nose in it.

You see, Eugenia has been blessed with a photographic memory, one that translates well into games of chance like… cards. She is certain that, if she can get into a card game with the dastardly Lord Cedric Durham, she can recoup the ten thousand. All she needs is a little help to pull off the scam. Someone to help her turn into a lady.

The person she chooses to help her is wealthy Nathaniel Seymour, a fairly well-known rake. Eugenia approaches him with an outrageous request. Will Nathaniel school her in flirting and manners of the ton, so she can charm her way into a game of cards? Luck is with Eugenia, for Nathaniel hates Lord Durham for reasons of his own, and he finds himself agreeing to help this drab little schoolmistress.

Now, before you start rolling your eyes at the plot, let me say that Martha Kirkland did some very smart things in this book. For one, she makes Eugenia an adult, and a sharp, sensible, focused one at that. I particularly liked that Eugenia wasn't trying to Right a Great Wrong by helping her cousin; rather, she wanted to give a Regency version of "up yours" to her snooty aunt, a motivation any of us can understand. And when Nathaniel gets on his high horse, Eugenia is right there to bring him down a peg. This is no simpering miss.

Nathaniel was a little harder for me to embrace, partly because his reaction to Eugenia is rather a weather-vane. When they first meet, he sees her as a dowdy, plain little nobody. But put her in a new dress and loosen her hair a bit, and suddenly she's the most beautiful thing he's ever laid eyes on. I found this to be a bit implausible and contrived. The attraction between these two happened too quickly, with the result that I didn't feel they really got to know each other as people, especially Nathaniel. She's gorgeous, so boom – he's a goner.

The use of a brothel as a plot device seems to be getting a little shopworn, too.

But there were lots of other things to like. Eugenia's insecurity in her new role was handled deftly, and the secondary characters were used with aplomb, especially the character of Winfield, Nathaniel's friend who is attracted to Eugenia himself. His role as Nathaniel's needler was fun.

To Catch a Scoundrel offers a quirky, engaging heroine inside a quirky, engaging plot. What more could a reader want?

--Cathy Sova


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