Robert's Lady

 
Dear Imposter by Nicole Byrd
(Jove, $6.50, PG-13) ISBN 0-515-13112-1
****
Gabriel Sinclair is fleeing several ruffians who are trying to kill him. He won an estate at a card game, and the losing former owner, the thoroughly degenerate Barrett, wants to keep from turning over the property by killing Gabriel before he can arrange to have the title transferred. As Gabriel runs through the streets of London, he winds up in an alley behind a theater. Another man there is muttering over a paper in his hand. When a carriage rolls up, the driver asks for the marquis of Tarrington. The other man identifies Gabriel as the unknown marquis. Gabriel, who is glad for the unexpected means of escape, climbs in the carriage and is driven off.

Miss Psyche Hill has a problem. Her uncle controls her trust; she cannot marry without his permission. It is her uncle’s plan to keep her money in the family by marrying her to his son, her cousin Percy, which Psyche understandably finds a most disagreeable idea. After seven seasons, the lovely Psyche is still unwed because her uncle has refused all her suitors. Psyche is getting desperate; she needs additional funds so that her young sister Circe, a talented artist, can receive proper instruction. When Percy proposes yet again, Psyche refuses him saying that she is already engaged to the marquis of Tarrington, whom she met while traveling on the continent. If she can carry this off, half the funds in trust will be released to her without her uncle’s permission.

Gabriel arrives at the Hill residence. To his surprise, he is immediately introduced as the marquis of Tarrington - it is a betrothal party where Psyche’s family is to meet the mysterious marquis. Psyche believes that Gabriel is the actor hired by her maid to play her fiancé. Nervously she introduces him to her family members, and Gabriel smoothly steps into the role.

At the end of the evening, however, Gabriel refuses to leave. He insists that he will stay at her house. After all, he is her fiancé, newly arrived from the continent, and they will be chaperoned by her elderly aunt who lives with Psyche and Circe so it is quite proper.

Psyche is soon frustrated by the situation. Her friends and society in general are delighted by the handsome, charming marquis. Psyche herself soon finds Gabriel far more appealing than she wants. Her cousin Percy continues to make a pest of himself. And Gabriel refuses to disappear quietly. It’s enough to drive a girl to distraction.

Gabriel, on the other hand, finds the situation much to his liking. He is safe from Barrett and his henchmen while under Psyche’s roof, he finds family life unexpectedly agreeable, and his feelings for the lovely Psyche soon begin to grow beyond mere liking.

With so many things against them - the threat posed by Barrett, the persistent Percy, the risk of Psyche’s scheme being exposed - surely this is bound to come to a bad end where even love cannot conquer all.

Dear Imposter is the second romance written by the mother-daughter team of Cheryl Zach and Michelle Place under the pseudonym of Nicole Byrd. I can confidently predict there’s a successful career in their future. This regency-era historical is one of the most entertaining romances I’ve read in a long while. I seriously considered awarding it five hearts - it’s that good. The story line is inventive, the characters are dynamic, and the pacing is lively.

I was particularly struck by the story’s tone with its even balance between solemnity and humor (there’s one laugh-out-loud, farcical scene where the actor who was actually hired to play the marquis of Tarrington shows up and Psyche is desperately trying to conceal she’s got an extra marquis in the house). Some romances are one long tear-jerker of angst and despair where it’s a wonder the entire cast of characters doesn’t slit their wrists just to end the misery; others are one huge laugh-fest where no one takes anything seriously and the Keystone Kops would feel at home. Dear Imposter is the rare romance that runs the gamut and never hits a false note.

Character development is one of the book’s strengths. These are characters with well-established motivations: they have reasons for what they do. Psyche and Gabriel are individually wonderful characters who are absolutely perfect for each other. They each have some issues from their pasts to deal with, but they don’t withhold information from each other simply for the sake of dragging out the conflict and there is not a hint of an irritating Big Misunderstanding. They know and understand each other. There’s no doubt that their love is strong enough to survive any crises in the happily ever after.

Readers who have found too many recent romances to be bland and flat and are looking for a well-paced story that sparkles with originality are advised to run, not walk, to their bookstore and seek out Dear Imposter. I highly recommend it.

--Lesley Dunlap


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