The Rake’s Fiancée
by Martha Kirkland
(Signet, $4.99, PG) ISBN 0-451-20260-0
This is the second book I have read recently that deals with the hero’s plot to revenge himself against the woman who scorned him many years earlier. Comparing Martha Kirkland’s June release with Patricia Oliver’s Broken Promises provides an object lesson in the effect of an author’s voice on the story. The Oliver book is dark and brooding, even angsty. The Kirkland book has a much lighter tone with danger and derring do. And both are enjoyable Regency romances.

Miss Phoebe Lowell had loved Lieutenant Bennett Holden when she was nineteen and newly “out.” Ben had loved her too and asked her uncle for her hand. But before he could speak to Phoebe, her uncle - for his own purposes - told the young woman that her suitor was a rake. When Phoebe asked Ben to defend himself against these charges, he refused; Phoebe should not doubt him. So the insecure girl refused the man she loved and Ben went storming out of the house and her life.

Eight years later, Phoebe has good reason to regret her action. Her one season ended without another offer, her uncle - deep in debt - took a pistol to his head, leaving her destitute. Her attempts to earn a living as a genteel companion had foundered on her unsubmissive nature. Thus, she is forced to earn her living as a china painter, working at the Coalport Pottery Works in Shropshire. If her work is tedious, if the hours are long, if living with six other women in a boarding house is difficult, Phoebe does not repine. She finds solace in spending her free half-day in the lovely countryside.

One winter afternoon, Phoebe makes her way across the famous iron bridge to her favorite spot, Wenlock Gorge. She fears that her visits to this lovely site will soon be curtailed for it is on the property of the new Lord Holden and Phoebe wants to avoid him at all costs. Given her now lowly status as a factory worker, she is pretty certain that she will not encounter the man she once rejected. But fate takes a hand.

A sudden snowstorm forces Phoebe to seek shelter and the only place she can get to is Holden Hall. She bluffs her way into the house and takes refuge in the only bedroom that has any furniture, the master bedroom. Imagine her surprise when she awakes in the middle of the night to find that she is not alone in bed. The master of Holden Hall has arrived.

Ben is shocked to recognize the woman who once spurned his love as his unexpected guest. He immediately decides to gain his revenge by showing Phoebe what it is to be rejected. But how to convince her that he is not holding a grudge. Ben hits on the scheme of claiming that a Frenchman’s bullet took away his memory of the past. Since Phoebe apparently knew him when, he asks her to tell him stories about their shared experiences.

Phoebe’s first thought is to flee, but the weather thwarts her attempt. She is stuck at the hall, with its very strange denizens: the aunt who is till waiting for the return of her betrothed from the French and Indian War; the drunken butler; the scared housekeeper; and the strange nocturnal visitor. Clearly something is amiss at Holden Hall. The house is denuded of all the furnishings and objects d’art that once made it a lovely house.

Ben is suspicious but has to be careful both because he is outnumbered by the villains and because he mustn’t admit to any knowledge of what the house used to look like. He is also distracted by rediscovering Phoebe and why he once fell in love with her.

Kirkland makes the original breach between Phoebe and Ben understandable, given their respective backgrounds. Ben had suffered because of his very eccentric relatives; he had a determination not to defend herself. Phoebe, orphaned at an early age, had deep-seated insecurities that she would be abandoned once again. But in the intervening eight years, both had matured and both could come to look at the past differently. But what about Ben’s current deception?

By stranding her hero and heroine in a remote house and by creating an aura of danger, Kirkland provides the rationale for their reigniting the love that both had thought lost. The Rake’s Fiancée is a very satisfying Regency romance

--Jean Mason

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