When a Lady Misbehaves
by Michelle Marcos
(St. Martin’s, $6.99, PG) ISBN 0-312-94849-2
Sorry as I am to disagree with Lisa Kleypas’s excited cover quotes, I didn’t find this book at all “sexy” or “moving.” If by “smolder,” however, she means lots of smoke but no flame, I’d have to agree with her.

April Jardine is a scullery maid in a London brothel. She escapes the drudgery of her life in the “chronicles and scandals of the titled elite” as reported in the newspaper society pages. But she would rather scrub floors than sell her virginity to the highest bidder, as Madame is pressuring her to do.

Escape arrives in the form of Madame’s diary, which chronicles her heyday as a courtesan in exhaustive detail: names, dates, preferences. April enlists the help of her friend Jenny and, in a more lady-like guise, poses as Madame’s daughter. She blackmails the gentlemen named in the diary, claiming to be the daughter of each.

Everything goes wonderfully, with April and Jenny extorting a total of two thousand pounds from their victims (most of whom are peers), until they try their luck with the Duke of Westbrook.

To their astonishment, the duke and his younger son embrace April as the prodigal daughter. The duke had been passionately in love with Madame and is so thrilled to see their daughter that he immediately takes her in and changes his will to leave her an enormous inheritance.

When she recovers from her shock at this reception, April begins to enjoy Blackheath Manor and, over Jenny’s protests, decides to forgo the quick buck. She could get used to being a pampered duke’s daughter.

The fly in the ointment, of course, is Riley, Marquess of Blackheath and the duke’s son and heir (oh, and he’s also a Circuit Judge). Riley doesn’t believe April’s claim to be his half sister, and the fact that he catches her checking out his package at their first meeting doesn’t help her credibility.

This book has an intriguing premise, and the author has a smooth facility with language. Perhaps, like Ms. Kleypas, you will also find this book charmingly inventive. It helps if you prefer modern attitudes dressed up in Regency costume.

If, however, you cringe at the notion of servants taking the ducal carriage to go grocery shopping, or a peer being summarily tossed into a dank cell in Newgate on the say-so of one lawyer and three constables, then you probably won’t make it much past the cigarette on page five.

Noticing sketchy history is usually a sign that I’m not finding the plot terribly compelling — and this is one of the most implausible stories I have ever chuckled over. The idea that the mere existence of a bastard child could ruin a peer’s reputation is certainly entertaining. And even if one is willing to believe that a scullery maid could produce a flawless aristocratic accent, it’s a puzzle how April learned perfect drawing room manners from mopping up vomit and reading the newspaper.

I probably shouldn’t even mention that she goes straight from her very first riding lesson (bareback, in front of Riley), to mounting a sidesaddle and riding in a fox hunt.

Noticing implausibilities is usually a sign that I either don’t like or don’t care about the characters; unfortunately this book never gave me any reason to care about either April or Riley. She’s a greedy liar and he’s a pompous — if muscular — cynic. Then they want each other. Then they fall in love. Or, at least, that’s what we’re told; we never actually see it happen. If an author is not emotionally connected to her characters, neither is the reader, and liberal doses of melodrama are not an effective substitute.

I had hoped and expected to like this book better, and this author clearly has interesting ideas and a healthy dose of creativity. But there’s more to writing a historical novel than corsets and breeches, and there’s more to writing romance than heavy breathing.

-- Judi McKee

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