A Compromising Situation

Under the Kissing Bough

A Proper Mistress by Shannon Donnelly
(Zebra Regency, $4.99, PG) ISBN 0-8217-7410-7
It isnít often one reads a Regency with as many quirky elements as this. Letís start with the hero. Theodore Winslow wants nothing more than to be cut from his fatherís will. That will force his father to reinstate Theoís beloved older brother, Terrance, as the rightful heir, even though Terrance is a rapscallion, if not a rake. What better way to do so than to show up at the family manor with a completely unsuitable fiancťe in tow?

Theo heads to Sallieís, an upscale brothel where he hopes to find a ladybird who can speak Cockney - at least enough to give his father conniptions. Sallie, once she understands it isnít sex Theo wants, has just the right woman in mind - Molly Sweet, the cook.

If thereís anything lower than a prostitute, itís a servant in a brothel, no matter that Mollyís culinary skills are part of the reason Sallieís establishment is doing so well. In any case, Molly agrees when she hears that Theo only wants companionship and will pay her fifty pounds, enough to help her realize her dream of owning an inn.

Plump, red-headed Molly and boyish Theo set out for his family home, only to be beset by a series of problems that force them to spend several nights on the road. Theo is impressed with Mollyís cheerfulness in the face of inconvenience, and finds heís completely at ease with her. Heís puzzled by the sporadic Cockney accent, though; itís as if she has to keep reminding herself to talk in a lowborn manner. Molly is equally at ease with Theo, and as their acquaintance deepens into friendship and then hints at more. Sheís terrified of what heíll think if the truth comes out - sheís no ladybird at all.

Honestly, when was the last time a Regency heroine worried about disappointing the hero because she wasnít a prostitute?

Theo is forced to open his eyes about his father and his brother, while coming to terms with his growing feelings for Molly. His characterization is charming, all the more so because heís slightly callow at the outset. By the end of the story, Theo has become a man, Molly has found a new sense of self-worth, and even Terrance may not be beyond hope.

Molly is refreshing. By not making her a standard Regency miss, the author was set free to make her independent, intelligent, and more free in her thoughts and speech. Not that sheís brash, but Molly can do things other heroines couldnít, like be capable in the kitchen and businesslike in her dealings with cooks and housekeepers. It fits this story to a T. Theo is endearing in another way, as he drops the blind devotion to his brother and begins to see him as human, and even more valued. These are two rich characters.

A mystery about Mollyís parentage is a slight side plot, though her status as the orphaned daughter of a British military officer is completely plausible. Itís tantalizing without overwhelming the main plot, which is Theoís and Mollyís deepening friendship.

Quirky, lighthearted, and just plain fun, A Proper Mistress is a breath of fresh air in the Regency genre. This one is definitely recommended.

--Cathy Sova

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