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Lady Hilary's Halloween
by Anne Barbour
(Signet, $4.99, G) ISBN 0-451-19499-3
****
I almost didn't pick up Anne Barbour's Signet Regency this month and that would have been a pity. But I had been disappointed in the last couple of Regencies that attempted to introduce a paranormal element into the storyline, and when I read the back blurb about a figure appearing in a burst of lightening I thought, "I don't think so." Then I remembered that Barbour is the author of my favorite Regency time travel, Step in Time and I decided to give Lady Hilary's Halloween a whirl.

I'm glad I had second thoughts because Barbour's take on the time travel phenomenon is unusual and she demonstrates her usual mastery of the conventions of Regency behavior. The result was a most enjoyable read.

Our heroine, Lady Hilary Merton, is a tiny woman with bright red hair who, at 24, is pretty much on the shelf and glad to be there. She occupies her time running her widowed father's household and pursuing her deep interest in the archeology of Roman Britain. Ever since her childhood, Hilary has been fascinated with the artifacts of this departed civilization. She has learned Latin, read widely and had the good fortune to investigate a ruined Roman villa on her neighbor's property. She feels no need to marry.

Then, the neighbor sells his estate and the identity of the purchaser thrills Hilary. The new owner is James Wincannon, one of the foremost experts on Roman archeology. Indeed, the prime reason that Wincannon bought the property was because of the presence of "Hilary's" villa. Hilary hopes that Wincannon will respect the promising beginning she has made in excavating the ruin and allow her to continue to work on the site. Indeed, one day as she passes the mysterious stone circle on her father's estate, she stops, approaches the altar stone, and leaves an offering, asking that Wincannon will be willing to share his knowledge and his villa with so enthusiastic an antiquary.

The first meeting between James and Hilary at a dinner party at her home is not promising. When Hilary informs her guest that she is an avid if amateur archeologist, he dismisses her claim with considerable disdain. James Wincannon does not have a very high opinion of women. His immense wealth and noble connections have made him the target of matchmaking mamas and ambitious debutantes for years. He has avoided their traps by largely avoiding society. He assumes that Hilary's interest in his subject is a mere ploy to gain his attention.

Hilary is not surprisingly offended by James' attitude and determines to have nothing to do with such an unpleasant and standoffish fellow. But as she drives by the stones, there is a blinding flash of lightening and there, near the ruins of a Roman tower stands a man dressed in the garb of a Roman soldier. And indeed, it is a Roman soldier – one Marcus Minimus Rufus. Once Hilary comes to accept that Rufus is indeed a visitor from the past, she realizes that only James Wincannon can deal with this monumentally strange occurrence. And so she takes Rufus to him.

Thus, Barbour's unusual take on the time travel plot device. Our time traveler is not the hero or heroine, but rather the means whereby the hero and heroine are brought together. Since Rufus is, after all, Hilary's "find" and since he seems more comfortable and forthcoming in her presence, James is forced to get to know her better. And as he does, he comes to realize that her claim to be interested in Roman archeology is no ploy but rather a long standing intellectual pursuit. He also begins to appreciate her fine mind and her winning personality. But he has a whole lot of prejudice to overcome and more than once falls back into old behavior and ideas.

James does seem at first ponderous and stuffy as well as just plain unpleasant. It is hard to imagine someone as astute and nice as Hilary falling in love with him. But Barbour gradually uncovers the better side to his personality, and shows us a man who has lovable qualities that have atrophied in the face of the betrayal of his previous fiancée and the constant pursuit of women who see only his wealth. And certainly James and Hilary are well matched intellectually

. Barbour uses the traditional time travel devices cleverly to enhance the story. We see Rufus as he confronts the culture of 19th century England and we learn something about the life of a legionnaire in Roman Britain. But (other than the fact that a character has traveled through time) there are none of the jarring questions that often bedevil this reader as I try to accept the premise of time travel. Both Hilary and James speak Latin, so there is no problem with communication. And both know enough about Rufus' world that they can both understand him and sympathize with his desire to return home.

Lady Hilary's Halloween demonstrates once again that Anne Barbour is capable of taking paranormal elements and using them in a Regency romance to enhance rather than overwhelm the love story. She also knows the world of Regency England and recreates its mores and manners with a sure hand. This is a most enjoyable novel which I recommend to Regency fans who occasionally like a bit of fantasy with their romance.

(Note to publishers: I think publishing books with seasonal motifs is a really cute idea. But could you please remember that books "published" in September really appear on the shelves in August? It didn't really achieve your purpose to have me reading a Halloween book in the sweltering heat of August. And I am sure I won't feel like reading the Christmas books in October when I know they'll start appearing in the stores. Maybe you could plan a bit better when your seasonal books hit the shelves.)

--Jean Mason


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