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

The Rake and the Wallflower
by Allison Lane
(Signet Regency, $4.99, PG) ISBN 0-451-20440-9
Veteran Regency author Allison Lane hits every mark with this tale of an ugly duckling who turns into, well, a prettier duck. And her romance with a man who is trying to overcome the lies that drove him from Society is as touching as it is romantic.

Mary Seabrook is in London for a Season, courtesy of her new brother-in-law Blake, Lord Rockhurst. Blake, married to Maryís eldest sister, Catherine, is generously dowering both Mary and her other sister, Laura, so that they may make good matches. Since Laura is a beauty, her task should be easy. Mary, whose straight brown hair and dusting of freckles are highly unfashionable, is hampered by a tendency to stammer and an interest in birds that marks her as a bluestocking.

Lauraís spiteful behavior doesnít help. Unwilling to share the least attention with her hopelessly awkward sister, Lauraís cruel taunts and ugly machinations drive Mary to seek solace behind a group of palm trees at her first ball. She pulls a small sketchpad from her reticule and calms herself by drawing several caricatures of society members. Mary is astonished when a man joins her behind the palms, a stranger with kind eyes who admires her sketches and laughingly identifies each one. He departs without introducing himself.

Mary soon learns his identity - and that heís a social pariah. Her kind stranger is Lord Grayson, heir to an earldom. Gray has been unwelcome in Society for several years, ever since he apparently seduced and ruined two young ladies, one of whom committed suicide. To make matters worse in the eyes of Society, he has amassed a sizeable fortune in trade! Someone is out to harm him, too. Gray is attacked, robbed, and beaten by thugs after leaving the ball, the first of several apparent attempts on his life.

Mary and Gray meet again several nights later, when he makes his way into a quiet study to fend off an attack of dizziness. Mary, who has retreated to look at a folio of bird portraits, is surprised to find herself quite at ease with this man, and intrigued even more when she learns he canít stand the sight of blood. Something doesnít seem to add up. Is he a notorious rake? Or a victim of lies and deceit?

Laura decides she wants Lord Grayson for herself. When it appears that itís Mary who has caught his eye and gained his friendship, Lauraís self-delusions explode into histrionics at a party, where she heaps abuse and ugly insinuations upon Mary in front of several influential Society matrons. Gray steps in and coolly announces his betrothal to Mary, and Lord Rockhurst backs him up in order to save Maryís reputation.

Mary and Gray soon find that they quite like the idea of marriage to one another. Mary, however, believes that Gray will tire of her social ineptness. Gray is sure that Mary will find herself an outcast because of his supposed indiscretions. Together, they decide to uncover the truth behind the rumors that ruined him.

This story was, in a word, fabulous. The author doesnít make a false step in her characterizations; every one is vivid and stays true to form. Mary is sweet, intelligent, and fully aware that she doesnít measure up in the eyes of Society, yet she finds several of the most influential matrons coming to her defense simply because of her calm temperament and essential good nature. This is not Cinderella story, but itís fun to see Mary become a Diamond in the eyes of the man she comes to love.

Lauraís pettiness and arrogance, which bring about her own downfall, are a perfect foil to Mary. Rest assured that Mary learns not to be cowed by her beautiful sister, and readers will find a grim satisfaction in Lauraís comeuppance. Kudos to Ms. Lane for allowing this subplot to play out in a realistic fashion and keeping Lauraís character consistent, distasteful though it may be.

Itís harder to say who shines brighter in this tale, Mary or Gray. He is portrayed as a compassionate man whose habitual kindness to the shyest debutantes has resulted in scandal, through no fault of his own. Gray has turned his back on his fatherís debauched lifestyle and now makes his living via a fleet of merchant ships. But underneath lurks a lonely man who would love a soulmate, and when the perfect woman appears, heís not about to let her get away. Gray and Mary make the perfect team as their initial friendship blossoms into a passion that Laura can never comprehend. Their charming, surprisingly sensual romance is a neat counter to the vicious gossip sessions which pepper the story and mark the underside of Society.

Its innovative plot, vivid characters, and lovely, tender romance mark The Rake and the Wallflower as one of the outstanding Regencies of the year. This is Allison Lane at her finest, and a story no Regency lover should miss.

--Cathy Sova

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