Deceiving Miss Dearborn
by Laurie Bishop
(Signet Regency, $4.99, G) ISBN 0-451-21014-4
****
Deceiving Miss Dearborn is a confection of a book that captures the appeal of the Regency genre: a gallant hero, an engaging heroine, articulate prose and a charming romance.

Out of financial necessity, Annabelle Dearborn has turned Hartleigh, her family’s home, into a pleasant country inn. At least, that’s the theory. In fact, it’s become more of a genteel boarding house, and not a particularly profitable one; Annabelle has a very kind heart and a high level of tolerance for eccentrics.

On the verge of selling a ruby ring – the final thing of value left by her father – the last thing she needs is a charity case. When she finds a filthy, half-naked man in her stable, however, she feels she can do nothing but take him in.

Badly beaten, the man has been robbed of both clothing and memory but his speech and manners identify him as a gentleman. He sees that Annabelle could use some help, and offers to exchange labor for room and board while he recovers from his physical wounds and waits for his memory to return. Annabelle agrees, and he decides to call himself John Wakefield, after the fact that he can remember nothing except awakening naked in a field.

Although this may not be the most original plot in the romance garden, in Ms. Bishop’s deft hands it is entertaining and highly readable.

Although it is clear that John is unaccustomed to work of any kind, he approaches his tasks with appealing humility and he does not let concern for his own situation blind him to the difficult circumstances of Annabelle’s life – or his benefactress’s quiet charm. The author also shows us how the experience at Hartleigh has a beneficial effect on how John will approach the rest of his life. The character is saved from being too good to be true by a little of the arrogance that returns as he discovers his real identity.

I admired and cheered for Annabelle, although she occasionally wandered awfully close to doormat territory. She’s working hard to keep her home and maintain a little dignity, but one of her difficulties is a widowed mother who refuses to accept the realities of their current financial situation. Annabelle showed admirable spine in dealing with just about everyone except her mother, and I’m afraid I had an uncharitable desire to see her give her selfish parent a swift kick.

Ms. Bishop shows a nice aptitude for the slow build that makes a Regency romance satisfying. The obstacles between John and Annabelle, both before and after he recovers his memory, are credible even as they are unable to stop Annabelle and John from wanting what they cannot have.

The pace is gentle, but with enough energy to keep pulling the reader through, and the author’s writing blends an ear for dialogue and description with a nice sense of the period conventions.

If I have a complaint, it is that the story wanders a bit at the end, with the characters in limbo and unable to find a solution to their problems, before it gets back on track.

All things considered, however, this is a very enjoyable reading experience. If you enjoy traditional Regencies, I can recommend this one.

--Judi McKee


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