A Compromising Situation

Proper Conduct

A Proper Mistress

Under the Kissing Bough

Barely Proper by Shannon Donnelly
(Zebra Regency, $4.99, G) ISBN 0-8217-7411-5
Terrance Winslow has made a reputation for himself as a handsome rake, one he’s quite comfortable with – until a jealous husband challenges him to a duel. Arriving at dawn to keep the appointment, Terrance finds his opponent already dead, shot in the back. Terrance is discovered standing over the body, holding the murder weapon. During the events that follow, Terrance is thrown from his horse and fractures his leg. As he lies in a ditch, who should come upon him but his old neighbor, Miss Sylvain Harwood?

Sylvain has always been more comfortable rambling through the woods than sitting in a parlor. She has known Terrance since she was a child and he an older friend of sorts. Through the years, she has followed his misadventures; now here he is, in need of help. Once Terrance explains the situation, Sylvain devises a plan. She will sneak him into the unused east wing of her family home, where he can recuperate out of sight of the local constabulary.

Terrance reluctantly agrees. Sylvain manages to keep him hidden for a few days, but their plan is thrown into disarray by her father’s announcement that he wishes to send Sylvain to London to visit with her married sisters and gain some town polish. So Terrance does something daring – he passes himself off as a footman at the last minute and hitches a ride on the back of the coach. Terrance makes his way to his rooms at the Albany Hotel – and finds a Bow Street Runner awaiting him. Luckily, this Runner is not at all convinced of Terrance’s guilt, and together, they’ll find out the truth. Sylvain, sharp county miss that she is, will help Terrance find the murderer, and help him find his heart.

Terrance enters the story already tired of his rakish reputation and superficial love life. He’s spent years misbehaving, but it’s worn thin and he finds himself appreciating Sylvain’s directness and lack of artifice. The fact that he is in danger of being hanged for murder puts the final nail in his hedonistic coffin. While Terrance may have earned his reputation, one never gets the impression that he’s an indolent brat needing to grow up. Instead, he’s portrayed as a man who is finally admitting the reasons for his behavior and working to make a better future. I liked him immensely.

Sylvain is the youngest of three girls, and her sisters have already made good matches (I believe in previous books). She’s been indulged in her love of the outdoors and in bringing home wounded creatures – there’s a pet three-legged fox in the story – but it’s portrayed as a natural part of her character and not as a plot device. She knows she’s not cut out for London drawing rooms and isn’t bothered in the slightest. One delightful passage has Terrance reluctantly agreeing to squire Sylvain around to the London sights, only to find her taste in amusements is quirky and enjoyable for them both.

The villain is identified midway through the book, and from then on it’s a matter of bringing him to justice. The resolution to this plot thread may not please all readers. The secondary characters are brought back from previous books, and we get to find out how they are doing, but it’s not intrusive. Even if you haven’t read any of the previous books, you’ll be able to follow this one quite easily.

As for the romance, well, Terrance appears to be eight or ten years older than Sylvain – it’s never made clear – but it isn’t an impediment. The attraction between them is sufficiently strong to make me believe in their happy ending.

Barely Proper offers all a reader could wish for in a light romantic read, just right for a winter afternoon. If you enjoy this story, check out the prequels, Proper Conduct and A Proper Mistress, which we have reviewed here at TRR.

--Cathy Sova

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