Autumn Flame by Lynne Hayworth
(Zebra Ballad, $5.50, R) ISBN 0-8217-6883-2
****
Autumn Flame marks the second release from an interesting new voice in the romance genre. Lynne Hayworth has a style that will please a lot of readers who have been around for a while and quite a few who are fairly new to romance. In reading it, I almost felt the author was paying homage to all the sweeping historicals of the 1970s and '80s, and if that was part of her intent, it's a fine tribute, indeed.

Diarmid Maclean, born in Scotland but now a Virginian, needs a wife in order to inherit the estate he's labored for years to establish. The owner is an elderly woman with a mysterious past who has more or less adopted Diarmid, but now her will states that he must marry or lose all. As Diarmid broods over his fate while sharing a drink at a tavern with his friend Harry, he spots a young woman being led to the auction block for indentured servants. Her exotic beauty catches his eye. Harry uses Diarmid's fascination to lure him into a wager. If Diarmid can make the wench over into a fine lady in three weeks, he'll forfeit his prized racing mare. And Diarmid must marry the girl, too.

Lucy Graves has survived a hellish ordeal. She's been betrayed by her stepfather, arrested for thievery in the slums of London, thrown into jail with her beloved little brother, and sentenced to seven years indenture in the colonies. Little Mick was ill for most of the deplorable voyage, with only Lucy to care for him, and he's already been sold away. Now here Lucy stands, her body bruised but her Romany pride intact, ready to do almost anything to be reunited with Mick.

Both Lucy and Diarmid soon find they are in over their heads. Diarmid promises the marriage will be in name only, but can't keep his mind off Lucy's delectable face and figure. Lucy is just as impressed with Diarmid, but he thinks she's a whore from the streets of London, and it's true, she was a thief. After an initial fight, Lucy agrees to become a lady if Diarmid will try to find Mick and buy him back from whoever took him as a servant.

It won't be smooth sailing. There's a jealous woman in the wings, just waiting to sink her claws into Lucy. The man who has Mick has designs on Diarmid's plantation and will do virtually anything to see he doesn't inherit. Lucy and Diarmid's relationship heats up as they begin to know each other and find all they've been missing. The sexual tension is plenty hot.

Diarmid is particularly well-drawn. He has a painful past behind him in the wake of Culloden, one he's been running from for sixteen years. Now here he is, falling for a woman he believes was a whore, a schemer like the one he loved and who ruined his family. This plot element would be creaky except for Diarmid's humor. He's portrayed as a resilient sort, one who alternates between brooding over his past and wisecracking about his present. The humor balanced what could have been just another "she done me wrong and I'll never love again" book. Here, it almost seems fresh, and given the depth of his previous betrayal, even plausible.

Lucy fares almost as well. She's witty, caring, and possessed of a deep loyalty for her only living relative, Mick. One might use the word "indomitable" to describe her; or perhaps her background as a child of a thieves' world has made her resourceful. In any case, she's fast on her feet, and almost as fast with her mouth.

If only she were quite as fast to think things through. Not once, but several times, the author uses Lucy's willingness to believe lies others tell her about Diarmid as a device to move the story forward. Once might have worked, but after that, Lucy comes across as rather thickheaded. When a character believes the spoutings of a known villain over her own understanding of the hero's character, it doesn't sit well.

However, there's enough entertainment in the story to move past these annoyances and enjoy the read. And when Lucy and Diarmid finally do come together, they fairly scorch the pages. Like them, readers will find it's worth the wait.

Autumn Flame is a grand romance in the old style. Diarmid and Lucy are delightful together, and the complex, seductive story packs an emotional wallop. Lynne Hayworth is a sparkling new talent, and if Autumn Flame is any indication, we have much to anticipate.

--Cathy Sova


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