Red Roses Mean Love
by Jacquie DíAlessandro
(Dell, $5.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-440-23553-7
*****
Red Roses Mean Love is the first novel by Jacquie DíAlessandro, and as I closed the cover (in the wee hours of the morning, I might add) my reaction could be summed up in one word.

Wow.

What a stunning debut this is. Funny, lush, sensuous, intriguing -- hang whatever kudos you want on it, itís an outstanding read, and historical romance readers absolutely will not want to miss it.

Stephen Barrett, Marquess of Glenfield and heir to a dukedom, is riding to his country lodge when heís attacked and shot from his horse. Left for dead, Stephen is rescued by Hayley Albright and her two servants. She takes Stephen to her family home, Albright Cottage, and cares for him until he awakens. Stephen is sure that someone is out to murder him. He decides to pass himself off as ďStephen Barrettson,Ē tutor, until he can recover his strength and make his way back to London surreptitiously. His friend and brother-in-law, Justin Mallory, will begin investigating. Stephenís own brother is a prime suspect.

Hayley is nothing like any woman Stephen has ever known. Six feet tall, but with a lovely face, she cheerfully cares for her younger brothers and sisters and one deaf auntie, managing the household left in her care after her fatherís death. Captain Tripp Albright was renowned for his seamanship. The tales he told of his adventures have afforded Hayley an income, although from secret means. The children are rambunctious enough, but added to the mix are three servants from her fatherís ship: Grimsley, the valet, Winston, a sea dog with salty language, and Pierre, a temperamental French cook. Throw in three huge dogs named Winky, Pinky, and Stinky, and itís a household totally unlike anything Stephen has ever experienced. This isnít proper.

Proper or not, itís not long before the family begins breaking through Stephenís carefully-constructed walls. In the Albrights Stephen sees all the warmth and love missing from his own upbringing. But heís a dissolute earl with a string of mistresses behind him, plus heís lied to Hayley from the start. What will happen if he allows her to love him? Eventually heíll have to leave. And thereís still someone out to kill him.

What lifts this book above the ordinary is the humor flowing throughout the story. Small scenes here and there will have readers laughing out loud. Stephen forced into a tea party with six-year-old Callie, and finding he canít get out of the small chair heís stuffed himself into. Stephen admonishing Hayley for her siblingís behavior, and getting the dressing-down of his life. Winston and Grimsley, whose constant bickering disguises a great friendship.

And yet, the climax is as heart-tugging as any reader could wish. The sexual tension sizzles between Stephen and Hayley, and there is one scene in the library that is nothing short of breathtaking in its simplicity and emotional punch. Itís obvious the author cared deeply about these characters, and readers will, too.

Nothing about Red Roses Mean Love suggests itís a first novel. Witty, stylish, and endearing, itís one of the best books Iíve read this year. Letís hope Ms. DíAlessandro has many more up her sleeve.

--Cathy Sova


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