Lord Stanhope's Proposal
by Jessica Benson
(Zebra Regency, $4.99, G) ISBN 0-821-76537-X
Lord Stanhope's Proposal is a debut Regency that reads like the work of a seasoned author. Its convoluted plot is a delight to follow, and the characters are as charming as one could wish. Calista Ashton resides in Deepdene, Sussex, with her vicar brother and her hypochondriac sister-in-law. She's twenty-four and unwed, which bothers her not a whit, because in less than a year she'll come into an inheritance substantial enough to allow her to purchase a cottage and live in spinsterish peace. Certainly she'll never marry the piggish Squire Everard Greystock, no matter how much she is prodded to do so.

In London, meanwhile, Tristan Rutherford-Hayes, Sixth Earl Stanhope, is called to his aunt's house. Lady Earla needs his help to talk some sense into Oswald, his wastrel fop of a cousin, who has once again disgraced the family by diving into a punch fountain at one of Lady Jersey's famed routs. Lady Earla has had enough. Either Oswald begins courting a respectable girl at once, with an eye to marriage, or she will send him to Bath to attend to an infirm auntie.

Oswald is aghast, and quickly comes up with a plan. He'll find some raw country girl that nobody has ever heard of, court her long enough to placate his mother and satisfy the betting books at White's, then call it off. But who? When Oswald and his chums run into one of Calista's neighbors and her name comes up, the plan is sealed. Off Oswald and his chums go, to rusticate for a short time in Deepdene.

Tristan hears of the plan and quickly tears off to Deepdene himself, in an attempt to prevent Oswald's suit and the possible ruin of an innocent girl. What follows is nearly a Regency farce, as Tristan finds himself engaged to a horse, Calista's brother decides to marry her off without her knowing it, Tristan's ex-mistress arrives spouting bad poetry, and the local gentry go to ridiculous heights to attract the attention of the fabled Nonesuch, Lord Stanhope. Amid all this carrying-on, Tristan and Calista find themselves to be soulmates. Now if only they can get rid of all these nuisancy people and declare their love for one another…

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and it was delightfully refreshing in its approach. There is a quirky prologue introducing the characters and I can only second the author's dedication to her agent, who never once suggested it be ditched. Calista and Tristan are two witty, mature characters, absolutely amazed at the insanity whirling around them as they find peace, laughter, and security in one other. The author wisely allows them time together as acquaintances, then as friends. And their relationship deepens, readers will find themselves anticipating Calista's acceptance of Lord Stanhope's suit.

And that, alas, is the book's only flaw. The conflict is maintained through Tristan's inaction toward his ex-mistress, and there was no logical reason whatever for him to drag it out so long. Of course, it gets in the way at the end and things have to be straightened out. Readers may well feel that his inaction was just an excuse to drag out the plot a bit.

Having said that, Lord Stanhope's Proposal is quirky, fun Regency with a delightful cast of characters. Jessica Benson has a very bright future ahead of her as a Regency author, and lovers of the Regency genre can applaud this fine new talent.

--Cathy Sova

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