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Dark Wager

Lady's Wager by Mary Spencer
(Dell, $5.99, PG) ISBN 0-440-22492-6
Featuring one of the more charming relationships I've recently had the pleasure of reading, Lady's Wager is nothing terribly original in the plot or motivations department. But author Mary Spencer has breathed such enchanting life into her hero and heroine that the only word I can use to describe them both is charismatic. I took a great deal of pleasure in watching their relationship unfold, not because of anything they did, but because of what they said. The dialogue here is humorously candid, but it never sounds like it was written for a sitcom.

Much of that dialogue springs from the lips of Gwendolyn Wells, an American visiting London in the company of her father, a noted scientist. Gwen is a beauty who has been fighting off "silly" men for years. She has no use for suitors who throw themselves at her feet and beg eternal devotion. She finds it tiresome, not to mention amusing. And although Gwen doesn't discount her looks, she knows that the "real" her is much more than just a pretty face. She also knows that the man of her dreams is out there somewhere, and that she'll know him at first glance.

Enter Jack Sommerton, Earl of Rexley. (A hero named Jack...imagine that.)

Member of the ton by day, sewer-dweller by night, Jack has a not-so-well-kept secret, and a decided distaste for Americans. He nonetheless finds himself meeting Gwen's ship as a favor to his friend Lord Kerlain, Gwen's cousin. Upon seeing the handsome, blonde-haired Englishman, Gwen's radar goes off and her heart goes "zing." She immediately informs her father.

"Papa," she whispered. "I promised you'd be the first to know. Him."
"Yes." She nodded. "Him."
.. "But, my dear you've only just met him. You've only just set foot in England. The man's done nothing but scowl at you."
"Nonetheless," she said, "Him."
... "But what if he doesn't want you, my dear?"
Her smile grew feline. "I shall make him."

And much to Jack's chagrin, Gwen does just that.

She blunders right into his heart.

Jack's spends his nights scouring the dark, drippy alleys of London looking for anyone who can help him piece together his true identity. Considering himself an Earl by adoption only, Jack is determined to find out the truth about his birth, and why he looks so damned much like his friend Lord Manning. Over time, he's become a savior of sorts to the prostitutes he rescues and sends to safety in the country. He's arranging for the safe passage of one young mother and her child when Gwen accidentally sets the whole negotiation on its ear and sends them both fleeing through the streets of London for their lives. After that little bonding experience, Jack doesn't have a prayer.

"Do you believe in fate, my lord?"
He looked at her again, with an expression of consternation.
"Miss Wells, I hope I misunderstand you."
She laughed. "I'm sure you do not. But if you have, let me make myself clear. I believe in fate. And you're mine.
He blinked at her, plainly stunned by this.
"I am not."
"Yes," she said gently, "I'm afraid you are."

Jack and Gwen, it turns out, get along like gangbusters. They truly enjoy each other's company, which, as odd as it seems, is unusual for a romance. All too many couples seem to do everything but talk and get to know each other. But Jack and Gwen bond, and as she becomes privy to his secrets, the two hatch a plot to gain the information that Jack needs and unmask a dangerous member of society at the same time. The plot involves Jack and Gwen pretending to hate each other, which leads to a few memorable "private" meetings.

There is a tremendous amount of subplot going on in Lady's Wager all involving characters who initially appeared in Spencer's previous Dark Wager. One of these subplots, involving Gwen's cousin and his quest to restore his family estate through gambling, explains the title of this book. Another subplot involving a hulking scientist with a 2 pence brain and his long suffering fiancée is meant to be a humorous, but only gets in the way. I so enjoyed the relationship between Jack and Gwen that anyone or anything else was a mere distraction.

As mentioned before, these two character have charisma – a natural good humor and intangible "it" that makes them thoroughly likable and readable. The romance between the two sparkles with an assured sense of sexuality. There is never a doubt as to the fact that they will make love, but Jack and Gwen are content to tease each other with their passions, and share simple intimate moments until the time is right. It's quite an endearing series of exchanges, not easily put into words, that author Spencer has beautifully illustrated.

With two such endearing characters wrapped in such a charmingly candid love story, how could you go wrong?

--Ann McGuire

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