The Bride's Protector

Each Precious Hour

Heart of the Night

Her Baby, His Secret

Her Private Bodyguard

His Secret Duchess

Honor's Bride

Lady Sarah's Son

The Stranger She Knew

 
My Lady's Dare by Gayle Wilson
(Harl. Historical #516, $4.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-373-29116-7
****
My Lady's Dare takes an unusual -- and welcome -- step in creating a character that stays true to her background, unsavory though it may be. Valentine Sinclair, the Earl of Dare, is a British spy. Napoleon has France under his command, and Dare, trying to rescue a friend from a French prison, arrives too late to save him. Someone informed the French of Dare's whereabouts. But who? There is one place in England where he might find the answers -- a notorious gaming house run by an expatriate Frenchman named Bonnet, a place where military officers and noblemen gather for unlimited-stakes card games.

Dare arrives at Bonnet's determined to root out information, but is distracted by the presence of a woman whom Bonnet introduces as "Mrs. Carstairs." She's obviously of a bit higher quality than the average gaming-hell whore. Dare is drawn to the rage and despair behind her eyes. Why is she here? What hold does Bonnet have over her? When Lady Luck favors Dare and Bonnet is wagered to the limit, Dare offers to place all bets on single hand of cards. The wager he insists on is the lovely Mrs. Carstairs.

Dare wins and spirits Elizabeth Carstairs away to one of his townhouses. His valet, Ned, points out that Dare already has a mistress and this will only cause unnecessary complications. Besides, she's a strumpet. Dare isn't so sure, though. Elizabeth has the looks and manners of a lady. Why was she with Henri Bonnet?

Dare returns to Paris after settling Elizabeth in his house, but this time, he is seriously wounded while on a self-imposed assassination mission avenging his friend's torture and death. He manages to return to the house where he left Elizabeth, and a bond is forged between Elizabeth and Ned as they care for Dare. Dare begins to fall in love with Elizabeth. She is sure that no good can come of a relationship, having been the mistress of an unsavory man like Bonnet. As Dare and Elizabeth try to sort out their feelings, Dare's brother Ian arrives, and it is he who will help unravel the mystery of the hold Bonnet has over Elizabeth.

My Lady's Dare is a fairly complex novel with layers of plot only touched on here. Elizabeth is an interesting heroine; this is no green girl in the first bloom of love, but a woman who has faced much of the worst life has to offer and who has no illusions about her worth -- or lack of it. Dare's challenge will be to convince her that in his eyes she has value beyond price. And there is no convenient misunderstanding about Elizabeth's background -- she has, indeed, suffered both physically and mentally.

It's sometimes difficult for an author to carry off a plot premise where a nobleman wishes to marry a woman with a shady past and to hell with society's conventions, but here it works beautifully. Dare's work as a spy and sometime assassin has exposed him to the underbelly of society, with the result that he no longer cares much for its conventions. It's entirely plausible. Once he finds he loves Elizabeth, there isn't a moment of self-doubt or care for what others may think. A stronger hero would be hard to find.

My Lady's Dare is a clean, tight, engrossing story featuring two complex people overcoming painful obstacles to find a lasting love. Readers will be pleased to note that this is the first of a trilogy about the Sinclair brothers. We're in for more treats ahead.

--Cathy Sova


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