Once a Rake
by Rona Sharon
(Zebra, $4.99, PG-13) ISBN 978-0-8217-8058-9
**
What could have been a touching love story was made tedious by a plot that was weighted with the childishness of the characters, one misunderstanding after another and several inconsistencies in Rona Sharon’s Once a Rake.

The hero, the Earl of Ashby, returns from Waterloo with a facial injury that causes him to hide behind masks, hang out in his cellar and completely avoid society. The sister of Ashby’s best friend Will, who lost his life in the war, barges into Ashby’s home two years into his self-imposed exile, ostensibly to gain Ashby’s assistance with her charity. It seems that the sister, Isabel Aubrey, has become a champion of war widows and children, the one cause that Ashby cannot refuse to help.

The other reason for Isabel’s visit is that she’s been in love with Ashby for many years. She grown now and will be forced to wed – soon – and none of her suitors has been able to compare to the Ashby she remembers. Her worry and love for him impel her to try to rescue Ashby and bring him back into the arms of the ton that once adored him.

Isabel doesn’t know that Ashby hasn’t been able to forget the one innocent kiss she gave him years ago when she was only fifteen, which made Ashby feel like a complete pervert and sent him running to propose marriage to another woman. The mature Isabel heats Ashby even more and their old friendship and new attraction are the only things strong enough to induce him to try to regain a semblance of his old life.

During the course of working together with Isabel and her friends on the charity, Ashby takes the first steps back to a normal life. He and Isabel court scandal as their affection becomes irresistible, and all the while the clock is ticking down to the time that her mother and older brother will force her to accept someone’s proposal.

Isabel and Ashby are mostly an excellent pairing. She’s beautiful, bright and interesting, loving and forgiving and no one’s doormat. Ashby is heroic, kind and strong and funny and sensual. Unfortunately stubbornness and misunderstanding are a large part of the conflict and the hero and heroine are kept apart by sheer childishness.

Ashby refuses to reveal his face to Isabel for a very long time, although it seems that everyone else in the book got to see it for one reason or another. When Isabel puts her foot down about not staying in hiding with Ashby, he finally doffs the mask and goes out – to his club to be with a group of other men. And when he finally goes out into normal society, he takes up with Isabel’s FRIEND, for some reason having to do with pride that was beyond understanding. There were too many misunderstandings to mention, but suffice it to say that one or the other was always getting their feelings hurt by putting words in each other’s mouths. And from chapter to chapter they were either in love and saying so, then wondering whether or not the other’s feelings were true. There were also numerous inconsistencies with Ashby’s mask and injuries. Several times he was involved in a completely normal conversation with a relative stranger and I would have to wonder whether or not Ashby was still wearing the mask.

These issues are a shame because Once a Rake would have been a very nice book otherwise. The writing is very skillful with deftly handled dialogue and lots of graceful description and history building. The love scenes are nice and hot and the secondary characters are well fleshed and necessary.

I haven’t read the author’s previous book, and I have to wonder whether her efforts will improve over time. While I can’t recommend this book without some heavy reservations, I’ll probably pick up the next one to find out.

--Wendy Livingston


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