Lady Mistress
by Anna Laurence
(Zebra, $4.99, R) ISBN 0-8217-6621-X
**
All of us have read novels based on a well-worn romance scenario but still were able to find enough content to enjoy the novel anyway. Unfortunately that is not the case with Anne Laurence's Lady Mistress. I found myself stumbling over too many other plot elements to be able to enjoy this story - set in Regency England - of a young woman, determined never to marry, who is tempted to allow herself one fling before settling into spinsterhood.

When she was ten Tressa Devlin's grandfather died, and her wastrel father inherited the earldom. He had already brought the family almost to bankruptcy so, when he returned to Lance Hall for his father's funeral, his younger brother found him drunk, shot him, and rigged the death to look like suicide. Tressa witnessed the murder but was too terrified to ever tell anyone what she had seen. Her uncle, now Lord Straith, made it clear that if she talked, there would be retribution.

At age 18, saying that the family's poverty meant she had to earn her own way, Tressa's uncle found her a position as a companion to an elderly woman. Tressa was happy to escape Lance Hall and happy with the Dowager Lady Farronby until Lady Farronby died four years later. Tressa stayed on as caretaker of Lady Farronby's London home, aided by one of the maids, Doro Jupe, and Mudge, an older man-of-all-work.

Doro, the daughter of a country solicitor who died a bankrupt, met and fell in love with an aspiring artist named Robert Wexby, the Marquess of Braxton's cousin and heir. The two are determined to marry despite the Marquess' opposition to the uneven match.

Robert learns that his cousin, the Marquess, has won a little house on Pocket Street in London, playing cards, and that the house is now standing empty. Tressa persuades Robert, Doro, and Mudge to steal away from Lady Farronby's house in the middle of the night and occupy the house on Pocket Street secretly for the few weeks left until Doro and Robert can elope. She does so in order to evade the thug Lord Straith has had watching her ever since she left Lance Hall. The four begin living in Braxton's house under assumed names, so that their identities are not revealed.

These events are set in motion in the first 35 or so pages of Lady Mistress,and already I found myself stumbling over a major logical inconsistency. Lord Straith employs Joe Legg to watch Tressa to insure that she keeps his secret and to make clear that if she does not, she will be endangering herself and her confidante. Wouldn't it be cheaper and safer just to keep her isolated at Lance Hall? Lord Straith's employment of Joe Legg to control Tressa was so central to the plot that its illogicality undermined the whole story.

The pseudonyms Tressa, Doro, Robert, and Mudge choose were a second early stumbling block. Tressa calls herself Miss Dearie-Dear, Doro becomes Miss Sweet-As-Pie, and Robert and Mudge take the names of Mr. Wrong and Mr. Right, respectively. I couldn't figure out why they chose such absurd names, other than as a plot device necessary to convince the Marquess of Braxton - when he decides to inspect his new property - that he has stumbled on to a love nest, complete with a pair of lightskirts. Braxton should not have been surprised, however, since his two best friends are improbably named the Earl of Sleet and Viscount St. Cur.

Hannibal, Marquess of Braxton, is 33, unmarried and, as Laurence describes him, without a hint of irony, "Braxton was a man among men." More originally, she also characterizes him as "an iron-eyed general who'd never served a single day in the army." What exactly does being "iron-eyed" mean, other than having gray eyes? I was never quite sure even though Laurence used the description so frequently that it became annoying.

A strong story line with characters the reader cared about could, perhaps, steamroller over annoying details such as ridiculous names and repetitious descriptions. Unfortunately, neither of these elements are present. Laurence apparently believed that she could elucidate Hannibal's character by extensive descriptions of his clothing and physique but without giving the reader much understanding of his thought processes.

Laurence did provide more insight into Tressa's thoughts and motivations as she vacillated back and forth about her relationship with Hannibal but I never found them completely convincing. Too often Tressa's actions seemed based on the needs of the plot rather than the character of the woman. In fact, the only time Hannibal and Tressa really grabbed my attention was when they got into bed.

To sum up, I had difficulty with the plot, style, and characterizations in Anne Laurence's Lady Mistress. Do not be misled by one of the most attractive covers I've seen in a long while…this book should be approached with caution. In fiction, as in real life, sex is only a small part of the story.

--Nancy J. Silberstein


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