By Arrangement

By Design

By Possession

The Charmer

Lady of Sin

Lord of a Thousand Nights

The Protector

The Romantic

The Seducer

The Rules of Seduction
by Madeline Hunter
(Dell, $6.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-553-58732-3
I have enjoyed many of Madeline Hunterís books, but Iíll admit Iím one of those readers who felt something got lost when she moved her settings from the Middle Ages to the Regency. Until now. In my opinion, this is the Regency book that captures the sensual romance, strong but sympathetic characters, and deftly woven story that made those Medievals such stand-out books.

Alexia Welbourne expected to marry her beloved cousin Benjamin when he returned from fighting the Turks in Greece. Benjamin took Alexia in and made her feel welcome after her parents died, even though her arrival coincided with the start of his new banking venture.

Sadly, Ben was lost at sea returning from Greece, and while Alexia is on friendly terms with Benís sisters, their brother, Timothy, looks on the necessity of supporting Alexia as an unfortunate obligation. Unfortunately, the family is reduced to near-poverty when the bank (now run by Timothy) almost fails Ė apparently because Lord Hayden Rothwell removed his considerable assets. The family is outraged by this callous behavior from someone who was supposed to be Benís friend, but there is no way out. Everything they have must be sold to pay the debt to Rothwell.

Rather than continue to be a burden, Alexia decides to seek employment as a governess Ė the most acceptable employment she can think of for a gently-reared spinster of 26 with no resources. She is amazed when Hayden offers her the position of finishing governess to his auntís daughter who will shortly be coming out. Not only is it employment, but Haydenís aunt has purchased the family home Ė Alexia wonít even have to move.

Alexia can hardly bring herself to accept anything from the man who ruined her cousinsí lives, but in the absence of other choices, takes the job.

What the reader knows Ė and Alexia does not Ė is that Timothy is actually ruined because he systematically embezzled huge amounts of money from the bank. In honor of Benís memory (Ben saved Hayden from being tortured to death by the Turks), Hayden has allowed Timothy to reimburse the bank without being revealed as a swindler. If heíd been caught and prosecuted, Timothy would almost certainly have hung.

This is, from beginning to end, a delightful, engaging read. Hayden and Alexia are multi-layered characters, flawed but intelligent and sympathetic. The banking/embezzlement plot has enough twists and turns to keep things moving at a nice pace, but what it does most effectively is highlight the way the hero and heroine handle the peculiar challenges of their relationship.

Their physical attraction is immediate, but because the characters are adults they never climb on the annoying I hate you/I want you seesaw. Both Hayden and Alexia are rational people who make well thought-out decisions Ė Hayden because it is in his nature, and Alexia because circumstances have forced her to be circumspect. This, of course, makes it all the more delicious when passion sweeps aside restraint.

The story begins with a fairly broad focus, to give us a perspective on the lives of Hayden and Alexia, but gradually the focus narrows until, even when other characters are on stage, we pay attention to them only for the effect that they have on our hero and heroine. It not only kept the pace compelling, but raised the emotional intensity of their relationship steadily throughout the book.

Because Ms. Hunter does such a wonderful job of building the emotional intensity between these two characters, their physical relationship is as romantic as it is sensual. This is an area where the authorís wonderful sense of rhythm and lovely turn of phrase particularly shines.

In fact, there is a marvelous restraint about this authorís writing that I particularly admire. She doesnít hit readers over the head (with anything, ever); she simply places the people and events before us in a way that lets us see them clearly, and allows the strength of their story to shine out of the pages.

This is an elegant, sensual story about passionate, intelligent people Ė my favorite flavor of romance.

-- Judi McKee

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