Unveiled by Jenni Licata
(Leisure, $4.99, PG) ISBN 0-8439-4542-7
***
Alexandre Rawlings, Earl of Carlton, is a man with a lot on his mind. His mistress has become tedious and he wishes to dump her. Queen Anne has summoned him for an unspecified purpose. And he has spied the most intriguing woman across the floor at a palace ball, a woman wearing a mask but whose face and form promise great beauty. Now, if only he can find out who she is.

Alex leaves the ballroom to keep his appointment with the Queen, and to his consternation, he finds the mystery woman standing over the body of the Queen's messenger. It's obvious that she didn't kill the man, but who did? Alex presses his watch into her hand and tells her to go hide in his coach until he can see her to safety, then continues on to the Queen's chambers. There he finds Anne has a special mission for him. She wants him to infiltrate a band of hooligans who call themselves the Mohocks, and she fears they are planning an attempt on her life. Since Alex is half-French, this will be a test of his loyalty.

Lady Victoria Wynter has her own troubles, the largest of which is her spoiled, drunken lout of a younger brother, Charles. Tori fears he may have fallen in with a band of rowdies who will lead him into ruin, and she is determined to prevent it. Everyone in London is talking about the Mohocks. When Alex shows up on her doorstep, determined to meet her, she is wary. This man is a renowned rake. What could he want with her? If he is a Mohock, will he just be using her?

Alex, being sworn to secrecy, can't explain his involvement with the Mohocks. As his feelings for Tori grow, he is torn between his promise to the Queen and his need to keep Tori safe. Tori, for her part, is trying to rein in Charles and his increasingly wild behavior. Is Alex the man of her dreams? Or is he another bad influence? Can she trust him or not?

The premise of Unveiled was appealing and interesting. In her debut novel, the author has successfully portrayed a hero who is torn between his duty and his heart. Alex's strong sense of loyalty place him in an impossible situation, and his indecision and conflicting emotions give him depth of character. His is a mature portrayal more often seen in the works of a seasoned author.

Other aspects of the book suffer from first-book flaws, though. Tori is not a sympathetic character, and neither is her brother. The explanation that is given for his behavior -- that their father has virtually ignored them both since the death of their mother -- is not strong enough to make us excuse him, especially when he shows no redeeming qualities whatsoever and spends most of the book acting like a drunken brat. Therefore, her attempts to save him seem misplaced at best and foolish at worst, and the happy ending didn't ring true.

Tori herself is portrayed as foolhardy on several occasions, rushing into danger without any thought for her personal safety (such as trailing the Mohocks, dressed as a man, alone, at night, through the streets of London when she knows that the gang has been preying on people). Her insistence on going along to "help" Alex seemed silly at best, as did her declaration that she'd break up the Mohocks herself if she had to. When Alex declares "I've saved you three times, I won't do it again," I couldn't help but agree with him.

Finally, the climax of the book read as though there was no sex and some editor insisted that a way be found to shove a scene in somehow. The plot contrivance used to get Alex and Tori alone together was downright unbelievable -- no hardened criminal intent on killing the Queen would give his enemy the leeway Ales is given. It's rare to say this, but the book would have been stronger without the sex scene. There was enough tension to carry it, and more believably, too. The author does sexual tension very well, in fact; the interaction between Alex and Tori sparkles, and the magnetism between them is almost palpable.

Jenni Licata's writing shows lot of promise and I bet we'll be hearing from her again. Stronger plotting would create stronger heroines and eliminate the need for plot contrivances. While I can't give Unveiled a wholehearted recommendation, I'll be interested to see what she comes up with next.

--Cathy Sova


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