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Lady Cat by Joan Overfield
(Zebra, $5.99, R) ISBN 0-8217-6096-3
****
It is 1810, and Edward, Viscount Brockton, is dying. He knows that Catheryn, his wife, and his two daughters will be left at the mercy of his dishonorable heir, Jeremey Sedgewood. Edward convinces Cat to attend a country party pretending to be his first wife's sister in order to meet his cousin Stephen. Only if there's a male heir will Sedgewood not inherit. Cat knows the risks, but she also loves her stepdaughters and understands how precarious their situation is.

Stephen Wrexley, the Earl of Rockholme, has one last night before taking up his commission in the army. He knows that this might be his last opportunity to "taste the sweet life on this earth." He intends to spend it in bed with a beautiful woman. He is no longer attracted to his former, married mistress. When he meets Cat who he believes to be a beautiful widow, he immediately intends seduction. Cat is easily persuaded to come to his room that night.

They share a night of passion that is to live in both their memories.

Five years later after the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo, Stephen returns to England. He tries to locate the woman he couldn't forget. He writes Lady Brockton, his cousin's widow, hoping to learn Cat's direction from her. She replies that she has no information.

Stephen eventually travels to her home where he discovers the lady he'd known and his cousin's widow are one and the same. Furious, he vows revenge.

He is guardian to Edward's children, the two daughters and a young son Eddie, now Lord Brockton. Thus, Stephen has an excuse to return and become better acquainted with Cat and the children. He gradually comes to respect her for her love and devotion to the children. Stephen's brother arrives searching for his long-absent brother. He sees Eddie and immediately notices the strong resemblance. Cat is forced to reveal Eddie's true paternity and ultimately the reasons behind the deception.

Stephen is infuriated that he has been used as a stud and that he has a son he can never acknowledge. He insists that Cat marry him to give him a son and heir to replace the one she stole.

Can a marriage that begins so unpropitiously become a love match? Will Sedgewood fade conveniently out of the picture?

There are several plot elements in Lady Cat that will be familiar to many readers: faithful wife forced to be unfaithful, sexually inexperienced woman discovering new levels of passion, one memorable night of passion changing lives, the rake beginning to question his values, degenerate heir threatening disaster, cast-off mistress creating complications. In Lady Cat they're combined in a fresh way that makes this a very entertaining and satisfying story. When I saw how the plot was progressing, I feared that the bulk of the book would be a vicious Stephen avenging himself on the traitorous Cat and lots of the Big Misunderstanding, but to my relief that's not the way the story goes.

What makes this story work so well is the strong characterization. Stephen and Cat are mature responsible characters who can look beyond past injuries and who are willing to share their thoughts and feelings. They're right for each other. What comes through is that these are nice people dealing with difficulties as best they can. I wanted these appealing characters to find the love they deserve.

Most of Cat's motivation is due to her great love for her children. Originally her stepdaughters' governess, she married Edward because she loved his daughters. The consequences of Edward's dying without a son to inherit will truly be devastating. Stephen's conversion from immoral rake to devoted husband is believable because his years in the military have changed him. His values have changed, and he acts in accordance with his new perspective.

Even the one night of lovemaking lingering in their memories for five years is believable. (I'm often a skeptic when this plot device is used. Just how great could that sex have been anyway?) Stephen's off to war, and this is a final, pleasant memory. Cat has little experience because of Edward's illness and death; she doesn't have any other nights to compare.

I've read other of Ms. Overfield's Regency-era romances and liked them, but I didn't find them particularly outstanding. This book is changing my opinion. If Lady Cat is an indication of future books from Ms. Overfield, this is an author to watch.

--Lesley Dunlap


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