A Bird in the Hand

The Beleaguered Earl

Birds of a Feather

The Clandestine Courtship

Devall's Angel

Double Deceit

The Earl's Revenge

Lord Avery's Legacy

The Second Lady Emily

Too Many Matchmakers

The Unscrupulous Uncle

The Notorious Widow
by Allison Lane
(Signet Regency, $4.99, G) ISBN 0-451-20166-3
When a book keeps me up waaay past my bedtime; when, realizing that I really have to get some zzzís or Iíll be in deep trouble, I ignore my sacred rule not to take a peek at the ending; then you can be sure that Iím going to recommend that book. Yes, Allison Laneís new Regency romance is guilty as charged. This one really grabbed me.

Interestingly, while I enjoyed the romance between a vicarís widow and an earl very much, what gripped me was the authorís portrayal of the sociopathic villain and the heroís attempts to unmask and stop him. Jasper Rankin is one of the most frightening characters I have encountered in quite a while and his reign of terror is all too believable.

Blake, Earl of Rockhurst, has stopped in Exeter to examine a rare map. As he leaves the stationerís shop, he sees a lovely young woman accompanied by a charming child. He is attracted by her appearance and her happy spirit. Then, he watches appalled as she seemingly engages in most inappropriate public behavior with a young man. He finds himself chastising her.

In fact, the scene he witnessed was purposely staged by Jasper Rankin, the heir of a local viscount. We know that rather than embracing Catherine, Jasper is threatening her. Indeed, we soon discover that Catherine has been subjected to a vicious campaign of rumor and innuendo which has totally undermined her once high credit with local society. This campaign is Jasperís work.

Rockhurst shortly encounters William, Lord Seabrook, with whom he attended school. At Eton, Rockhurst had a reputation as a defender of the weaker from bullies. Thus, William asks the earl for help in countering the vicious rumors that are spreading about his sister, Catherine. Intrigued, Rockhurst agrees, only to discover that his friendís sister is the very woman who had seemed to behave so badly in Exeter. He soon becomes convinced that Catherine is indeed innocent of the vile charges that have destroyed her position and which threaten her entire family. Feeling guilty because of his actions, he vows to prove her innocence.

His quest uncovers a pattern of intimidation and violence on the part of Jasper Rankin that dates from his youth. Before, he had mostly concentrated his vileness on the weak and the powerless. But for some reason, he has now targeted Catherine. Blake will have to discover why Jasper is so determined to blacken her name if he is to restore her position and reputation.

Thus, The Notorious Widow has something of the quality of a Regency thriller. Patiently and skillfully, Rockhurst puts the pieces together. It is not easy; most of the ordinary folks of the area are completely scared to cross Rankin; most of the better sort have accepted the carefully constructed persona he has created to hide his deeds. Gradually, Rankinís motives become clear as an old crime is uncovered. Lane sustains the suspense very well, no mean feat in a story with a guaranteed happy ending. I must admit that it was the suspense that kept me turning the pages.

Not that there was anything wrong with the romance. Rockhurst and Catherine are surely perfect for each other - the same values, the same goals, the same ideals, and a lovely bit of sexual tension as well. Their relationship is threatened by Catherineís younger sisterís determination to catch the earl by fair means or foul and the widowís belief that she should defer to her sisterís wishes.

Obviously, I found The Notorious Widow a compelling read. It is not a light or frivolous story. Rather, it takes a look at the darker side of Regency society - the unrestrained power of the upper class which could so easily be abused and the ability of gossip to destroy lives in a small, closed social order. If you are looking for a book that is just a bit different from the usual Regency romance and are careful to begin The Notorious Widow when you have plenty of time to finish the book, then give it a try.

--Jean Mason

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