Seducing an Angel
by Mary Balogh
(Delacorte, $23.00, PG-13) ISBN 978-0-385-34105-9
***
Romance novels resemble fairy tales, at least to the extent that there is always a "happily ever after." But like fairy tales, the path to this much desired outcome can and indeed should not be an easy one. Readers (or at least this reader) expect to understand why and how the hero and heroine fall in love so that that we can believe that the relationship will survive and flourish once we close the book. Usually Mary Balogh excels at creating characters whose happy ending is convincingly real. For me, she fails at this important task in Seducing an Angel..

This is the fourth installment of Balogh's story of the Huxtables, three sisters and one brother who were thrust into the heart of the ton when the latter unexpectedly became the Earl of Merton. I very much enjoyed the first three books which centered on the three sisters, Vanessa, Kate and Meg. Seducing an Angel. offers Stephen's story and he, interestingly enough, is the "angel" of the title. I am hard put to recall any romance hero who is quite as perfect as Stephen.

The Earl of Merton is tall, blond and handsome. Since inheriting the title seven years earlier at the age of seventeen, Stephen has assumed his responsibilities with proper seriousness. Unlike many young men in his situation, he is moderate in his habits, neither drinking nor gambling to excess. He is not inexperienced, but is no rake. He is kind to wallflowers at ton balls and devoted to his sisters and their growing family. He cares for his estates and performs his duties in the House of Lords with due diligence. In short, Stephen is a paragon of paragons.

If the hero of Seducing an Angel. is above reproach, the heroine has fallen just about as far as she can. For heaven's sake, the ton believes she murdered her husband with an axe!

Cassandra Belmont, Lady Paget, takes notoriety to a new level. The daughter of a wastrel and gambler, her beauty brought her attention at a young age. When Lord Paget, a contemporary of her father's, offered her marriage, status and security, the eighteen year old Cassandra saw little choice but to accept. It proved to be a disastrous decision. Lord Paget was a kind husband except when he periodically drank to excess. (My diagnosis: self-medicating bi-polar disease.) While in the throes of drink and madness, Lord Paget became a violent abuser. When her husband's life ended under suspicious circumstances, Cassandra could not but be grateful.

However, Lady Paget was not to find peace. Instead, her husband's heir threatened to prosecute her for the murder of his father unless she gave up her portion, her jewels, and her claims on the estate. Thus Cassandra finds herself in a shabby rented house in London with no resources and no employment. She is also responsible for the support of her companion, her maid, her maid's young daughter, and one large, lame dog.

Cassandra decides to choose the only option open to her: to use her undoubted beauty and allure to find a protector who will set her up as his mistress. Having seen and discovered something about the young Earl of Merton while walking in the park, she crashes a ball held by his sister, arranges to "bump into" him, and takes him home to her bed. The next morning, she informs Stephen that she is looking for a protector and suggests that he is her candidate. A confused Stephen agrees, sends her a goodly sum of money the next day, makes love with her the next night, and then decides he really can't stomach the arrangement but will instead ease her path back into society. He will support her, but not sleep with her.

At this early moment in the story, my necessary believability quotient began to decline rapidly. Within a week, Stephen has introduced Cassandra to his family who rally to her, begun to restore her respectability, discovered her unhappy story, helped her to recover her self-esteem so that she will fight for what is hers, reconciled her with her brother, and announced their betrothal when they are found kissing on a balcony at a ball. Within a week!

And of course, while Cassandra demurs and insists that she will never wed again, Stephen insists on their marrying.

It is the timeframe as much as anything else that led to my dissatisfaction with the story. Perhaps over a longer time span, Stephen could have discovered Cassandra's good qualities and fallen in love with her. Perhaps with more time, Cassandra's recovery from years of abuse would have been more believable. Perhaps had his sisters actually had the opportunity to get to know Cassandra, their championing both her and the match would have made more sense. But as the story stands, I was not convinced.

I have reviewed many books by Mary Balogh over the years (if not lately). Many were keepers; all received at least four stars. But I have to admit that Seducing an Angel. simply didn't work for me. The book is readable; the characters are interesting; the plot has potential. It is an acceptable romance. Balogh is too talented to write a bad book. But I was not satisfied with Cassandra's and Stephen's journey to true love and thus their "happily ever after" did not seem real.

--Jean Mason


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