Her Perfect Earl by Bethany Brooks
(Signet Regency, $4.99, PG) ISBN 0-451-21599-0
*****
Bethany Brooks delivers a wonderful Regency romance in this tale of a plain governess and an unhappy earl. The basic plot premise is nothing Regency lovers havenít seen before, but itís delivered with a delightful flair and a real depth of characterization that sets it above the crowd and places it firmly in Keeper Territory.

Miss Esmerelda Fortune has an ulterior motive for accepting the position of governess to the Earl of Ashforthís five unruly children. Esmie, who is of genteel birth, wishes to open an academy for young ladies in her rundown, abandoned family home. Here the girls can study the classics as well as astronomy, mathematics, and other academic pursuits. Esmie wishes to offer an option to females who have the same interest in learning that she has.

But that takes money, and Esmie needs the prize to be given out in a classics competition at Oxford. Her paper is just about finished. All she needs is a chance to read Life of Corinna, an ancient manuscript about women reputed to be in the possession of the Earl of Ashforth Ė the same man who derided her scholarship in a previous letter. Esmie plans to get a look at the manuscript, somehow.

Arriving at Ashforth Abbey with only a mangy stray cat named Plutarch in tow, Esmie finds a child on the roof. Esmie coaxes little Caroline down with the cat as bait. She soon discovers that the five children are kept distant from their widower father. Julian Armstrong, the Earl, is focused on marrying an heiress so he can maintain the perfection of Ashworth Abbey. Itís the one thing in his life he can actually try and make perfect.

This rather superficial pursuit has some complex motivations. Julian is a man whose life, in his eyes, is almost out of control. He barely knows his children. His marriage was a disaster. And his estate is deeply in debt. Julian realizes with dread that Ashforth Abbey may well go under, and on his imperfect watch. Marrying the lovely Ė and wealthy Ė Miss Lambton will at least allow him to keep a roof over their heads, even if her fatherís fortune was made in trade. And Julianís love of classical scholarship will have to take a back seat, a sacrifice to family duty.

But the one place he can escape is his library, and itís here that Julian and Esmie cross swords. He forbids her entry. She knows she must get in and try to find the manuscript. Julian is exasperated and intrigued by this literate, forthright woman and her flyaway hair and slim figure. When Esmie ďborrowsĒ the manuscript and then it disappears, Julian keeps stumbling upon Esmie as she hunts for it. Their conversations spark, and soon Julian canít get her out of his mind. The vapid Miss Lambton, now his fiancťe, looks like a bad bargain after all.

The strength of Her Perfect Earl is in the characterizations. Julian is a man who knows his imperfections, but struggles to mask them. Surrounded by so much beauty in the form of Ashforth Abbey, the weight of his responsibilities and the loss of his own dream of scholarship have made him defensive. He is perfectly willing to endure another loveless marriage for the sake of his property and his family, for he does love the children even if he doesnít know how to be close to them. When Esmie steps into the picture, all of his preconceived ideas are knocked sideways and Julian finds himself really reaching out to someone for the first time in, well, maybe forever.

One of the best scenes in the book takes place at night, while Esmie and Julian are hunting through deserted rooms for the missing book. Suddenly Julian finds the words tumbling out as he unburdens himself to Esmie and tells her the truth of his background and his life. He doesnít know why he does it. All he knows is that he canít not open himself to this woman, with whom he feels such an inexplicable kinship. And when, horrified, he waits for her shock and revulsion, the reader knows that Julian is in for a wonderful surprise. Itís delightful, and these nocturnal conversations provide a solid foundation for the romance.

Esmie and Julian, with their very different backgrounds, envy each other in ways they canít appreciate. To Esmie, who is scraping by in life, Julian wants for nothing with his fabulous house, servants, and material wealth. To Julian, Esmie has the biggest luxury of all Ė freedom to pursue her dreams. These two, so at odds, mesh beautifully. They see themselves as imperfect, and each other as perfection itself.

But problems remain. Julian needs the money and is now engaged. He canít live without Esmie, and he would never make her his mistress. The resolution may strike readers as a bit too convenient, but theyíll probably be too happy to care. And the ending is anything but predictable.

The children arenít portrayed as instant angels, either. Itís a nice touch and helps keeps the story grounded.

Her Perfect Earl is darn near the perfect Regency. Itís not often readers are treated to a story this complex and well thought-out, and the romance is as enjoyable as they come. Bethany Brooks, who has written under the name Beth Pattillo, joins the ranks of Nonni St. George and Diane Farr as Regency authors that earned an instant spot on my ďmust-buyĒ list. Donít miss this one!

--Cathy Sova


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