Dearest Max

The Pretender by Barbara Miller
(Sonnet, $6.99, PG) ISBN 0-7434-1230-3
This was my first Barbara Miller book. I didn’t know what to expect, so I was delighted to discover a little gem.

Juliet Sinclair has returned from the Continent with her younger brother, Harry, and sister, Ariel, where she has been attempting to keep them safe from their cousin Redmond. She believes Redmond killed her father and that he is trying to arrange “accidents” for Juliet and her siblings to get his hands on the profitable earldom that has passed to the now eighteen-year-old Harry and the fortune inherited equally by his sisters.

Juliet believes that the best way to protect Ariel is to marry her to a man of both honor and mettle; someone strong enough to guard her and become heir to her share of the money, thereby putting it out of Redmond’s reach. Juliet settles on Draco Melling as the best man for the job.

Much decorated during the war, and still a half-pay officer in the dragroons, Draco is no fortune hunter. He is a working partner in a successful shipping business and will someday inherit his father’s title and estate. His qualifications seem impeccable.

When Juliet finally meets Draco at a ball, however, he’s foxed and, although she enjoys his shocking banter, she wonders if he’s responsible enough to care for Ariel. Her question is answered moments later when Redmond accosts her. Draco neatly disposes of him, then whisks the Sinclairs out of harm’s reach. Juliet revises her opinion, thinking that, once she has corrected some of his bad habits, Draco will be just the man she wants for her sister.

What follows is an engaging corkscrew of a story as Juliet tries to convince herself that all the time she spends in Draco’s company is dedicated to making him the right man for her sister. Draco, who quickly sees that Juliet would suit him much better, shows considerable ingenuity and not a little sensitivity in arranging things to suit himself. He plays his cards very close to the vest, not giving Ariel any false encouragement, but not openly confessing his lack of interest in the certain knowledge that, if he rejects Ariel outright, he risks losing his chance to win Juliet.

Draco, in dealing with the growing threat posed by Redmond, proves himself every bit as brave and capable as Juliet hoped. He also has a dry, self-deprecating sense of humor and enough wit to appreciate the full range of Juliet’s independent intelligence.

For her part, Juliet is not one of those tiresome “feisty” heroines who demands everything her own way regardless. Rather, she is a strong, resourceful woman who has been struggling to carry the dangerous burdens of her family and now finds herself grateful to share them with a man who takes her and the situation seriously. She is also one of the few people who “gets” Draco’s irreverent humor and this not only makes for entertaining reading, it also adds an intellectual flourish to their physical attraction. This is a meeting of minds as well as bodies, which makes their relationship charming and believable.

I thought all of it worked nicely together, keeping the story moving forward at a brisk pace and holding my interest through all the twists and turns of the plot.

Although entertaining and romantic, it isn’t a perfect book. The sparks between Juliet and Draco kept my attention in spite of the fact that some character motivations were less than compelling. Juliet was determined never to marry, apparently because she feared childbirth. I can understand that a girl who watched her mother suffer several miscarriages then die during delivery might wish to avoid pregnancy, and yet somehow this was never convincing.

Draco’s past is also complicated with an unfortunate death for which he feels responsible, but, like Juliet’s fear of pregnancy, it is an issue that’s raised constantly but never really feels as important as it ought to. Both Juliet and Draco eventually give up their concerns with scarcely a whimper.

Overall these distractions did not stop me from enjoying the book, though, and I particularly recommend it to readers who like traditional Regencies but would also enjoy a little more length and a little more heat.

--Judi McKee

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