In Praise of Younger Men by Jo Beverley, Cathy Maxwell, Jaclyn Reding & Lauren Royal
(Signet, $6.50, PG-13) ISBN 0-451-20380-1
In Praise of Younger Men reminded me of a track relay team. You know, second-best runner leading off, weakest two in the middle, and the strongest one running the anchor leg. That’s exactly how the stories in this anthology played out.

”A Man Who Can Dance” by Cathy Maxwell starts us off. On the very day Graham MacNab graduates from his studies with Edinburgh’s finest doctor, he spies the woman of his dreams on horseback. Besotted, Graham allows himself to be drawn into a wager with his odious cousin, Blair. Lucinda Whitlow will be Graham’s bride or Graham will pay his cousin ten gold coins, a sum that will keep him indebted to his uncle for years. Graham has already worked for his room and board and wants nothing more than to be free of his uncle’s shipping business and on his own as a doctor.

Chief among Graham’s worries is that he needs to attend the ball where Miss Whitlow will be looking over the crop of available men, and Graham can’t dance. In desperation, he turns to the one person in his uncle’s house whom he counts as a friend: the governess, Sarah. She’s six years his senior, steady, calm, and can surely help him out. So they begin their secret dance lessons, and Graham finds his old friend Sarah becoming more attractive with every waltz and quadrille.

There’s nothing memorable about this story, and it felt rather flat. Neither Graham nor Sarah are very interesting characters, and Blair is merely a villainous caricature. There are some rather spicy scenes between Graham and Sarah, though.

”Forevermore” by Lauren Royal finds Clarice Bradford and her adopted daughter Mary on their way to the wedding of Lord Cainewood, their neighbor. Once there, Clarice and Mary meet a handsome Scotsman who turns out to be Cameron Leslie, cousin of the bride. Cameron and Clarice are immediately attracted. But she’s thirty-one and he’s only twenty-three, and Clarice quickly decides he’s much too young for her. After all, he doesn’t have her life experience. How could they possibly suit?

Cameron tries to woo Clarice and make her see the error of her thinking, but she resists him over and over. Quite frankly, I found Clarice tiresome and Cameron forced into doggedness in his pursuit of her. Cameron does eventually wear Clarice down and the plot resolves her past issues with intimacy, but it was a long road to get there.

”Written in the Stars” by Jaclyn Reding is the story of Harriet Drynan, a baron’s daughter, who is informed by her Aunt Devorgilla that she has two weeks to marry -- by her 28th birthday -- or there will be dire consequences. Auntie Gill has had A Dream, and one doesn’t question the dreams of Scottish aunties, does one? Harriet’s shock is interrupted by the arrival of her twin brother Geoffrey, who has been away for the last fifteen years fighting Napoleon, and hasn’t been heard from since he left. With him is their neighbor, Tristan, who has been away just as long.

Tristan and Harriet are immediately attracted to each other, and when he hears of the dream, Tristan offers to marry Harriet. (Doesn't anyone think to ask Auntie Gill what she ate before retiring?) But no, that won't do, either. Seems there's a curse on the family, and any Drynan woman who marries an older man will soon find him felled by a heart attack or attacked by wild dogs or run over by elephants or hit by lightning or -- well, you get the idea. At any rate, seriously dead. So Tristan won't do, because he was born the same day as Harriet, and is a few hours older than her. Harriet had better get herself off to Edinburgh and find a younger man, and fast.

I admit I was lost by now, and not just because of the inanities of this plot. No, I was back in the first four pages, trying to figure out how Geoffrey could join the army at age thirteen, and how he could manage not to contact his family for fifteen years. This was 1816, not the Crusades. With all the dispatches and travel back and forth between Britain and the Continent, it seems as though the son of a baron would be able to get word to his family somehow. By the time I dragged myself into the latter part of the story, I’d about had it with Harriet letting everyone else boss her around. And what could have been a kick-butt ending, breaking a curse and all that, instead wimped out and took a much less satisfying path.

But never fear, Jo Beverley brings this race home with “The Demon’s Mistress,” a 100-page novella that really lives up to the term. For here is a richly layered story of despair and redeeming love, and under the master pen of Beverley, it shines.

George “Van” Vandiemen, known to the ton as The Demon for his rakish conduct, has a pistol to his head and is ready to end it all when a woman breaks into his room and begs him to stop. She is Maria Celestin, a wealthy widow known as the Golden Lily, and she has a proposition for Van. Pretend to be her lover for the next six weeks, and she’ll pay him twenty thousand pounds. Enough to clear his gaming debts and allow him to fix up his family home.

Van, intrigued more than he cares to admit, reluctantly agrees. Soon he and the slightly older Maria are setting the ton on its ear with their affair, which progresses to the real thing. Maria has her own reasons for wanting to save Van, and becoming romantically entangled is the last thing on her mind. After all, she’s thirty-two, past the first blush of youth, and he’s used to younger women. But with age comes experience, and these two are better matched than they know. With a little luck and honesty, they just might be able to save each other.

This story is a little gem. Van and Maria act like adults, and one can’t help but ache for their pain. Maria, widowed after ten years of marriage, is barren. Van is the last of his line. She knows she shouldn’t involve herself. And here is the only place where I felt the story stumbled a bit. These characters were so strong that the ending could have been truer to the premise. As it was, it took the easy way out, and I was a bit disappointed. But the rest of the story was a delightful read, and for those who like their romance steamy, it’s here in spades.

In Praise of Younger Men ultimately asks readers to believe in a thin conflict: that marriage to a younger man was a huge problem. Since it’s been going on for time immemorial, that’s a lot to ask and ultimately it doesn’t quite succeed. Readers may be asking themselves, “So, he’s younger, so what? It’s not like she’s fifty and he’s eighteen.” In the end, two of the stories are strong enough to manage without this premise, and two are not. Maybe they’ll work better for you than they did for me.

--Cathy Sova

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