Duchess in Love

Enchanting Pleasures

Potent Pleasures

Fool for Love by Eloisa James
(Avon, $6.99, PG) ISBN 0-06-050811-6
For the first half of this book, the appealingly down-to-earth characters had me puzzling over the title. Unfortunately, I came to understand it when love did, in fact, turn their brains to oatmeal.

Simon Darby is about to lose his inheritance. He has just learned that his aunt Esme, widow of the uncle from whom he recently inherited the title, is pregnant. As Esme was barely on speaking terms with her husband for many years, Simon doubts that his uncle is the father. He even suspects Esme of rusticating in the country for an appropriate amount of time, after which she will return and pass off some other baby as the true heir.

On the other hand, the uncle died of a heart attack in his wifeís bedchamber, so proving the child isnít his could be difficult.

Determined to get to the bottom of the matter, Simon decides to visit his aunt in Wiltshire. His excuse is his two young stepsisters, guardianship of whom he inherited eight months earlier when his father and stepmother died in a carriage accident. While he accepts that he is responsible for five-year-old Josie and toddler Anabel, Simon has absolutely no ambition to be a parent, and is content to leave the childrenís care in the hands of servants.

As a result, Lady Henrietta Maclellan discovers the little girls, walking down the High Street of her small Wiltshire town, escaping from their hysterical nurse. Henrietta's hip deformity gives her a limp and, she believes, renders her unable to bear children, so she expects never to marry. She has kept her longing for children of her own a secret, and indulges her maternal instincts by devouring child-rearing manuals.

As a result, she is shocked by Simonís benign neglect of his young charges and offers to help him find an appropriate caregiver while he visits her friend Esme.

There are a great many things to like about this book, not least of which is the character (most of the time) of Henrietta. Knowing herself to be a completely ineligible parti, she is amused by Simonís flirtations with her, and, unencumbered by expectations, allows herself to be completely natural with him. Simon, who is accustomed to being fawned over and deferred to, finds himself captivated by her forthrightness, which is all to his credit.

These two characters are highly likable although not terribly deep. This becomes even clearer when, as the book progresses, each makes uncharacteristic decisions contrived, apparently, to add a few pages to the story. Since she is established as a levelheaded woman with a sense of humor, it is disappointing to see Henrietta turn hen-witted when she falls in love.

I applaud the authorís attempts to keep the charactersí behavior within the boundaries of their time. Henrietta, as a woman expected to remain single all her life, is almost completely ignorant about the realities of Ďmarital intimacies.í This makes it rather jarring, however, when the sexually experienced Simon throws in the towel with scarcely a whimper after discovering that childbirth will likely kill Henrietta, and itís left to the sheltered virgin to discover and explain their alternatives to him.

There is a lovely secondary romance between Esme and the man who may be the father of her child. Her lover, a Marquess who accepted exile rather than bring disgrace and embarrassment to Esme with his presence, returns to England and takes a humble position as her gardener, simply to be near her. His steadfast devotion and her inability to resist him make for a charming romance. That is, until Esme makes an arbitrary and, under the circumstances, inexplicable decision about their relationship. Then their story simply disappears without a trace. Guess we all know what that means.

Smooth, well-paced writing and congenial characters made this book a fun read. The fact that love stole the wits of most of these nice people kept it from being a truly memorable one.

-- Judi McKee

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