My False Heart by Liz Carlyle
(Sonnet, $6.50, PG-13) ISBN 0-671-04054-5
*****
Something wonderful has happened in romance publishing recently. Several of the best books Iíve read lately have been by first-time authors. Publishers seem to be recognizing that as much as romance readers love new books from favorite authors, weíre eager for new names to add to our watch-for list. I predict that Liz Carlyleís name will soon be showing up on many lists.

Ten years ago, Elliot Armstrongís engagement ended when his fiancťe became pregnant by another man. Since then he has been embracing a most debauched lifestyle. His exploits at the gambling table, in the boudoir and on the dueling field are the subject of scandal and gossip. He is a rake of the first order.

Ten years ago, Evangeline Stone crossed the English Channel with her artist father and young brother and sister following the death of her mother and two other siblings. They have been living quietly in near-obscurity ever since. Her father has died, and Evangeline heads an energetic family and earns her living as a painter.

It is now 1819, and Elliot has succeeded to the title of Marquess of Rannoch. Following a notoriously public quarrel with his latest mistress, he pursues her to her family home to end their arrangement. On the way he becomes lost during a driving rainstorm and stops at an isolated country manor to ask directions. He is mistaken for an expected guest and welcomed into the house. He gradually realizes that someone else has arranged to have his portrait painted by Miss Stone. Elliot further compounds the error by providing only a partial name so that he is known as Mr. Roberts. After half-heartedly trying to correct the mistake in identity, Elliot slips into his new persona.

He is attracted to the beautiful and capable Miss Stone and is entertained by the dynamics of the large expanded family where children are both seen and heard. His visits to the Stonesí, ostensibly for the purpose of sitting for his portrait, become lengthier and more frequent as his attraction for the lovely artist develops into something deeper and he becomes more and more involved with the other family members. He begins to reevaluate his life.

Evangeline is just as powerfully attracted to the steady Mr. Roberts, but she knows that her family obligations will prevent her from marrying. She begins to contemplate carrying on an affair. Elliot intends to reveal his true identity but never quite gets around to it. It is only when Evangelineís step-grandmother and uncle and aunt (one of Elliotís former mistresses!) pay an unannounced visit, that Elliotís true identity is revealed. Will his infamous reputation forever end his hopes for love and happiness?

Countless romances have featured the classic plot of the degenerate rake who sees the error of his ways, reforms, and finds a lasting and true love with a good woman. Rarely, however, does the author provide much support for this personality change. Where Ms. Carlyleís book excels is in the how and why. I suspect that My False Heart will be my personal standard of comparison for this story line for a long time to come, and I doubt that many succeeding books will measure up.

Iíve never been much of a fan of this story line because it often seems to be as though the hero turns over a new leaf without much effort. A life of sin and depravity must hold some attraction, or surely he would have been a model of rectitude long ago. Furthermore, I usually wonder whether the charms of that old rakish lifestyle might lure him back to the fleshpots and gambling dens down the road.

In the development of Elliotís character, Ms. Carlyle has credibly supported the motivation for his sordid career as a rake and for his resolve to reform. While Evangeline and her family may have been the spark for his new attitude, itís his own desire for a different life -- not Evangeline forcing goodness and virtue on him -- that makes his conversion so believable. And as the story continues, Elliotís change of heart only becomes more convincing.

While Elliot is the major character, Evangeline is a strong match for him. Sheís no immature, society belle who is swayed by the heroís gorgeous physique and powerful position. This is a woman whoís used to handling her own affairs and those of her family. They complement each other so perfectly that itís easy to believe Elliot could fall in love with her. Moreover, Elliotís love for Evangeline is no easy, shallow love -- thereís a scene in a carriage that is both passionate and moving. I believed.

Thereís also a subplot concerning Cicely Howell, Elliotís ex-fiancee, woven through the main plot, which provides a tinge of mystery. My sole reservation about My False Heart is the pat resolution to this subplot; real life isnít this accommodating.

A five-heart book means itís a keeper. Thereís no better description of My False Heart. Itís going on my keeper shelf because I loved it and know Iíll want to read it again. I think you will, too.

--Lesley Dunlap


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