Celia's Grand Passion
by Lynn Kerstan
(Fawcett, $4.99, PG) ISBN: 0-449-00183-0
I thought Lynn Kerstan's first Regency was promising, was disappointed in her second, and now discover that third time is the charm. Celia's Grand Passion is the best new Regency I've read since Balogh's last and suggests that the genre may have discovered a new star who can create the kind of emotionally intense stories in the tradition of Balogh and Kelly that we love so well.

We meet Celia, Lady Greer on her first evening in London. She is masquerading as a maid to spy on the guests at her hostess' dinner party. Celia believes that one guest may well be the Earl of Kendal, the man who has been the stuff of her dreams for years, ever since she saw him one day in the village near her home. When her host and the earl make for the study where she is concealed, Celia hides under the desk, only to be discovered by Lord Kendal.

Kendall is at once enchanted by the ingenuous charm of this young widow. But Kendal has been sadly burned by love; he has no time for an emotional involvement with any woman. And so, he tries to put Celia out of his mind, to deny his attraction. But of course, he can't.

Celia is twenty-seven and happily widowed. She had married a man forty years her senior at seventeen to save her father from debtor's prison. She had endured nine years of enforced servitude in a loveless, sexless marriage. But her husband's death had left her a wealthy widow and she has come to London to enjoy herself. If she has a secret dream, it is that Lord Kendal will find her attractive and perhaps become her lover. She has no wish to marry again.

The two appear to be on the path to a simple but enjoyable affair; but nothing is simple when it involves two people with such a strong attraction to each other. Kendal discovers Celia's virginity and refuses to consummate the affair. She flees back to her home in the Lake District. Kendal's diplomatic responsibilities force him to return to his neighboring estate. And the secrets that had led Kendal to distrust women and his own feelings are gradually uncovered.

I was very impressed with Kerstan's skill in gradually but effectively uncovering the pasts which shaped both the hero's and the heroine's characters. Celia is an especially fine creation, a woman who has suffered but who has not let her circumstances destroy her spirit. Kerstan also makes Kendal's confusion about his own feelings completely believable. This is a very well written book.

Kerstan sets her story against the peace celebrations in the summer of 1814. She creates a cast of well-drawn secondary characters, many of whom add a leaven of humor to her tale. I was especially delighted with the poetry loving Russian general whose determination to meet his idol Wordsworth is an important part of a well structured plot. Indeed, Kerstan exhibits in Celia's Grand Passion an unusual ability to combine an emotionally intense love story with lighter moments in a seamless story.

Suffice it to say that the ending left me both laughing and emotionally satisfied. There may have even been a little tear in my eye (or I could have been crying because I couldn't put the book down and it was almost 2 AM). I am wearing mourning because of the announcement that Mary Balogh is leaving traditional Regencies. If Lynn Kerstan lives up to the promise of Celia's Grand Passion, we may have found her replacement.

--Jean Mason

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