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The First Waltz

A Taste For Love by Donna Bell
(Zebra, $4.99, G) ISBN 0-8217-6104-8
We've all read stories where an ordinary man turns out to be an earl or some such. A Taste For Love reverses that idea, and offers us the story of an earl who wants to go into trade to relieve his boredom with life. Unfortunately, the main characters spend so little time with each other that it hardly qualifies as a romance.

Charles Drake, Earl of Middlehurst, has returned from the Peninsular War and is bored with town life. He loves to cook, and soon decides that opening a restaurant and serving as its secret chef will be his ticket to fulfillment. This charming premise and an endearing initial characterization of Charles make for an interesting opening to the book.

Switch to the countryside and Miss Audrey Langston. Her father has just about gambled away her dowry, and it's time to get the gel married. Several Seasons have produced no suitors that Audrey will accept. However, though Audrey doesn't know it, she's been engaged to Charles Drake since the age of eleven, thanks to an agreement between the families. Audrey is aghast, but understands her role in the family is to secure some money. She'll travel to London for a final Season and will marry Middlehurst if no better suitors come along.

Charles, meanwhile, is knee-deep in restaurant life and finding it's harder work than he thought. His sous-chef, an ex-patriate Frenchman named Rimbeau, eases the load, as does his lovely daughter Colette. Charles is somewhat smitten with Colette and toys with the idea of making her his mistress. A marriage is out of the question, of course. The Rimbeaus are only minor nobility, and French to boot. The Ton would never accept.

At this point, the story lost its charm for me. Charles is perfectly willing to buck the Ton to get what he wants, but thinks nothing of ruining a decent young woman's life rather than take a final courageous step and marry her. Goodbye heroism, hello selfishness.

Audrey and Charles don't even meet until page 68, which might work in a long historical but doesn't work here. Audrey makes her way to London with her irrepressible cousin Emmeline and a governess/companion named Miss Riggs. An entire section devoted to their journey could have been cut. By page 88, Charles and Audrey have spent one and a half pages in each other's company. Charles keeps promising to call on Audrey and then getting tied up at the restaurant. Audrey can't figure this out. He seems interested, then doesn't turn up. So she sulks and pines and marvels on the fact that she's fallen in love at first sight, which didn't ring true; she's exchanged approximately ten sentences with the man. But his looks are exceptional. Yes, it must be love.

This bit of Regency teenybopperism aside, Charles, for his part, thinks Audrey will make an excellent wife. And maybe he'll keep Colette as his mistress on the side. After all, lots of men do it. So he takes Audrey on picnics and for rides in his carriage, but their interaction is about as dull as it can get. I never had any insight as to why Charles falls in love with Audrey, other than she's pretty and has nice manners. Audrey schemes to get Charles to notice her by doing outrageous thing like wearing an ugly dress. Their romance is no meeting of the minds.

Colette is actually one of the most interesting characters in the book. She's a schemer, but with good reason. And Emmeline is also fairly captivating, but unfortunately, it's not her story. As for Miss Riggs, I have doubts that a paid companion would be allowed to berate the lady of the house in front of her guests, but it happens several times.

I can't really recommend A Taste for Love. I was bored with Audrey and Charles, and after the first eighty pages, I didn't like either one of them. But readers should judge for themselves. You may find A Taste for Love more to your liking.

--Cathy Sova

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