The Scandalous
Miss Delaney

The Hero Returns by Catherine Blair
(Zebra Regency, $4.99, PG) ISBN 0-8217-6448-9
The Hero Returns is a Regency tailor-made for readers who like character growth. It's unusual story frame will no doubt please those looking for something out of the ordinary, too. When was the last time you read a Regency romance in which the lead characters were married for most of the book?

John Hunter Kirby, Viscount Westhaven, has returned from Spain with a healed flesh wound, but fresh scars on his psyche. He's only mildly interested in taking up his former life, mainly because he feels like a shameful failure after the deaths of soldiers in his regiment. His younger brother has done an admirable job of running the family estate in his absence. Nobody in London seems to really care about the fate of the men fighting in the Peninsula. Hunter feels like a fish out of water - an angst-ridden, tortured fish at that. Even his fiancée, longtime neighbor Amelia Harrow, is too busy hero-worshipping him to understand what has become of him.

Hunter agrees to carry out the wedding, not wanting to disappoint Amelia. In his heart, he knows he's a poor bargain, and he's honest enough to admit that her slavish devotion is irritating and suffocating. Amelia is bewildered. She catches glimpses of the Hunter she knew before the war, but her new husband is more often aloof and absent on some pretext of working on the estate. Amelia's bewilderment and hurt turns to anger as Hunter draws close, then pulls away again. When he leaves and returns to London on the pretext of taking his seat in the House of Lords, the stars finally fall from her eyes. Amelia lets him go. Now it's time for her to grow up and learn to be a wife, rather than a bride.

In the first part of the book, the reader's sympathies lie with Hunter as he battles to do the right thing while feeling pressured under Amelia's cloying devotion. But things get interesting after hunter exits the picture for a while and Amelia is faced with the puzzle of how to direct her own life. Amelia finds inner strength and resources, in time to admit that she loves her husband, feet of clay and all, and decides to go after him. If he's going to leave her, then he can tell her to her face.

The author does a fine job of helping us feel Hunter's emotions. Amelia's infatuation is as uncomfortable to the reader as it is to Hunter, which makes it even more of a pleasure for us to see it develop into a mature love. Amelia, for all that she's set up as an irritant in the first part of the book, is surprisingly sympathetic. Readers will pull for her as she struggles to define herself, now that her previous supports have been kicked away.

If the book has one flaw, it's that Hunter's emotional about-face comes rather too quickly. Readers aren't given convincing proof that the change is for real -- I kept expecting him to be overtaken by self-doubt again. But even this flaw is used to advantage, as Amelia doesn't believe it either and makes him work to prove it. A bit more internal dialogue, to gain Hunter's point of view, would have strengthened his position and not made him seem capricious.

The Hero Returns deserves a place in your To-Be-Read pile, at the very least. Readers hungering for a change-of-pace Regency will want to move it right to the top.

--Cathy Sova

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