My Dark Prince

As Jean Ross Ewing:

Flowers Under Ice

Love's Reward

The Seduction by Julia Ross
(Berkley, $12.95, PG-13) ISBN 0-425-18469-2
Alden Granville-Strachan, Viscount Gracechurch, finds one night that he has just wagered - and lost - his entire estate, down to the last candelabra. Abnormally fuzzy-headed, Alden is happy to accept his opponentís final wager: seduce Mistress Juliet Seton within a week and regain everything. His opponent, Lord Edward Vane, is certain Alden will never succeed. After all, Juliet is a widow who has spurned any manís advances for the last five years. Aldenís legendary reputation as a rake and a libertine is about to be tested to the limit.

At first glance, itís hard to find much to like about Alden. The period clothing he wears is certainly true to form, though the high-heeled shoes may make readers wince. But his main affectation is lace - great clusters and foamings of lace, gathered from ladies heís slept with. It adorns his cuffs and throat in profusion. So, the authorís challenge is to give readers a popinjay and transform him into a hero.

And she succeeds, admirably. Alden travels to Julietís village and takes a room at a local inn, though his own home is close by. On his first trip to her cottage, Alden finds Mistress Seton wonít give him the time of day, so he does something dangerous: he allows himself to be stung by a bee, knowing heíll pass out in Julietís garden. Juliet has no choice but to take him inside while he gradually recovers, and when Alden challenges her to a game of chess, she reluctantly agrees. She even accepts his wager - if he wins, they will play one game a day for a week.

The last thing Juliet wants is a man in her life. A disastrous marriage and the ensuing estrangement from her family have driven her to this small village, where she lives quietly and fends off any interest from potential suitors. She reluctantly agrees to the chess games, and against her will, is drawn to the man she glimpses underneath the lace.

To say much more would spoil the joy of discovery for the reader, so Iíll stop there. However, this book is much, much more than the standard ďtwo people who vow never to love again but canít help themselvesĒ sort of romance. Alden has layers and layers to his story, and as they are gradually lifted away, the man who emerges is fine and caring, courageous and determined; in short, all a hero should be. Julietís tale is equally layered, and her reasons for remaining in an out-of-the-way hamlet are convincing. Given her circumstances, sheís managed admirably.

Their relationship is built slowly, one small piece at a time, as one can imagine two wary people would approach an unexpected - and unwanted - interest. Alden initially views Juliet as simply a pleasant means to a more important end, but as he gets to know her, he reluctantly begins to feel more than an abstract interest. One gets the feeling that Alden, for all his conquests, has never really known a woman, never really interacted with one in anything but a superficial and sexual manner, and certainly never met one who could be considered a soulmate. As Julietís personality unfolds, he finds that he likes her, respects her, understands her, and eventually, truly desires her in the deepest possible way, to the point where he will do anything for her. This is the woman who stimulates his mind as much as his body.

Juliet, guarded and lonely under her defiant exterior, is at one with the reader when meeting Alden. Why wonít this annoying fop go away? Granted, heís handsome as sin, but she doesnít want him near her. As they are brought into each otherís company over a chess board, Juliet begins to glimpse the real man underneath, and he soothes all her hidden misery with his attentiveness and gentle seduction.

And in a brilliant bit of plotting, it is Juliet who turns the tables on Alden as the deadline for meeting the wager draws near. When the wager is met, itís all but scorching.

The second half of the book is more plot driven, as Juliet and Alden must deal with the exterior forces keeping them apart, as well as their own confused feelings. Here the book stumbles slightly, as Juliet makes several large false assumptions about Alden. Her motivation seems to be a desperate attempt to convince herself that Alden is really no good, rather than trust her instincts about him, and it didnít always work well. However, Alden comes through in true hero fashion.

The Seduction, with its fascinating characters, intriguing plot, and engrossing, rewarding romance, is a story not to be missed. Juliet and Alden will capture your interest right from the start. Add to this a lyrical storytelling style and you have a beautifully woven tale of an unexpected love that succeeds against all odds. This will be ranked as one of the yearís best.

--Cathy Sova

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