St. Raven by Jo Beverley
(Signet, $6.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-451-20807-2
Have you ever had this experience? You receive a much-anticipated gift, only to be disappointed because it wasn’t what you hoped for. Then, several hours later, you realize that what you actually received was much better than what you anticipated. That’s how I felt, reading St. Raven.

In the roads north of London, a French highwayman known as The Crow stops the carriage of Viscount Crofton. Seeing that the young woman with Crofton is an innocent, and knowing that Crofton is on his way to a celebratory orgy at an estate he recently acquired at cards, the highwayman takes it upon himself to liberate the lady from Crofton’s clutches.

The “highwayman” is, in fact, Tristan Tregallows, Duke of St. Raven, masquerading as The Crow for his own reasons. The young woman is Cressida Mandeville, and she is not pleased to be “rescued.” It was her father, a rich, newly-knighted merchant recently returned from India, who gambled away their property to Crofton.

Because he had a cache of jewels hidden in an erotic statue, Cressida’s father was at first optimistic that he could rebuild their fortunes. Unfortunately, the statue was one of a set and discovering that he has the wrong one in his possession he has lapsed into catatonic despair.

Desperate to help her family, Cressida agreed to become Crofton’s mistress for one week in return for the “Indian artifacts.” While willing to fulfill the nasty bargain if necessary, Cressida actually hoped to avoid this fate by drugging Crofton, stealing the statue and escaping.

She is appalled to find that a well-bred virgin would likely have been the centerpiece of Crofton’s debauched house party. Having no fondness for Crofton, however, Tris offers to help Cressida outwit him and recover the jewels.

I have to begin by saying that I disliked both Tris and Cressida heartily at the beginning of the book. There are early hints at a better man beneath the surface (those of you who’ve read Hazard know that Tris’s rescue of Cressida was his second act of knight-errantry that evening), but he quickly turns into a shockingly manipulative cad. He slyly goads Cressida into attending the orgy with him, disguised as a harem girl, and rather enjoys her horrified titillation.

Early impressions of Cressida were equally unencouraging. Although the dedication to her family was laudable, her sacrifice was weakened by the fact that she was debasing herself to save a father who lost everything and then basically gave up and went to bed. And any heroine who’d rather be an idiot than a big scaredy-cat endangers my respect for her intelligence.

I also have to say I thought everything pretty much ground to a halt during the orgy. Ms. Beverley, thankfully, does not stoop to the gratuitous (and astonishingly unerotic) prurience that some other authors have ladled over their orgy scenarios, but Cressida’s shocked tourism and Tris’s alternate amusement and arousal started to wear thin.

Then this story grabbed my attention and I could scarcely tear the wrapping away fast enough.

It is a jewel of character development. Sure, the twists and turns of the plot hang together nicely and there’s a well-integrated subplot regarding the true identity of The Crow. But the real joy is in learning to like Cressida and Tris, and watching them learn to like each other.

Cressida ultimately proves herself to be a woman of strength and sense. She has enough self-respect to walk away from a dishonorable relationship with Tris, and enough honesty to define the relationship she can accept on her own terms. When she offers Tris friendship, it turns out to be the half of the loaf he can’t turn down.

As a result, Tris finds himself revealing vulnerabilities that make him more sympathetic than the hardened rake he appeared in the beginning. Gradually, the reader - along with Cressida - begins to feel that perhaps he can be trusted, and that his definition of trust may not be as self-serving as we first feared.

To give away too much more would be a disservice to a well-crafted story and an ultimately very satisfying romance. Better if you just open this present for yourself.

-- Judi McKee

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