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A Clandestine Courtship
by Allison Lane
(Signet, $4.99, PG) ISBN 0-451-19744-5
I have been a fan of Allison Lane's Regencies ever since her very first book, which sits on my keeper shelf. Thus, I was looking forward to A Clandestine Courtship if only for the imaginative title. Unfortunately, I found myself not enjoying this book very much, and feel I must warn readers that there is something unsatisfying about the story.

I wonder if Lane was trying to introduce a bit of a Gothic element into her book. You know, that feeling of being in the presence of evil incarnate. In a rather imaginative twist, the evil force in A Clandestine Courtship is actually dead. He is the late Earl of Ridgeway, identical twin brother of the book's hero. But he was such an awful fellow that even months after his murder, his baleful influence remains.

The story opens as a lovely widow, Mary, Lady Northrup, awaits the return of her brother-in-law to take up both the title and the estate. Her husband had died a year earlier, apparently falling down a cliff in a drunken stupor. He was no loss; indeed, he was a crony of the late unlamented earl. Mary, the daughter of the local vicar, had married Northrup at 20, when the baron was only 18. She had done so at the behest of her dying father. In the intervening eight years, she had seen little of her husband, a definite boon. Instead, she had stayed home in Shropshire, trying to protect the estate from her husband's depredations and raising her two lovely sisters-in-law. She could only wonder what her future would hold.

James Underwood, tenth earl of Ridgeway, is also returning to the neighborhood, but only reluctantly. Ten years earlier he had left when his brother had driven him from his home upon their father's death. John had objected to the fact that while he got the entailed property, James had received much of the Underwood property. James had left reluctantly but had believed it was the right thing to do. He feared that his brother would use his power to retaliate against those he was fond of.

James' departure had ended a long friendship and budding romance between him and Mary. And he had been sped on his way by John's declaration that he and Mary had been lovers. Now, after ten years, James once again approaches his home and he is not happy about what he will find.

What he finds are browbeaten and distrustful servants, exploited tenants, and a neighborhood which clearly fears that he is as much like his brother in temperament as he is in appearance. He also finds a community awash in nasty rumors about just about everyone, but especially about the beauteous Lady Northrup.

James determines that he must find out who murdered his brother, especially after there is an attempt on his life. He seeks Mary's help, for she knows what has been going on in his absence. And yes, he recognizes that the attraction he felt a decade earlier is still alive. But what can he do about his jealous fear that his brother had gotten her first?

For her part, Mary's horrible marriage has soured her on men and marriage. She, not surprisingly, resists admitting any tender feelings for her old friend and shies away from him when he seems to be seeking a greater intimacy.

Why didn't I like this book? Well, first off, I didn't much like the hero. Or perhaps I should say, I didn't respect him. He knew what a deceitful cad his brother was (although he failed to appreciate the depth of his twin's duplicity), yet he chooses to spend much of the book agonizing over Mary's supposed fall from grace. When he finally realizes that she is the victim of his brother's calumny, he does behave with some good sense, but he seems to me far from heroic, although he is clearly a paragon of virtue. I have nothing against virtue, but I do like it to be accompanied by intelligence.

The second reason I didn't like the book is that the constant recounting of the evil earl's deeds casts a pall over the story. Such a catalog of unmitigated cruelty and criminality seemed excessive and left a nasty taste. Moreover, we are talking about 1812 not 1112. I question whether at this late date even an earl could have operated as John apparently did, especially since his victims supposedly included members of the gentry as well as the lower orders. Stronger sanctions than a cut direct from the Prince Regent would have been possible.

All in all, A Clandestine Courtship was a disappointing read. I liked the secondary romances between James' friends and Mary's sisters-in-law, but the love story of the hero and heroine didn't have the necessary spark to engage my interest. So I feel I must warn my fellow Regency addicts that A Clandestine Courtship is not up to Lane's usual standards and hope that she returns to form in her next book.

--Jean Mason

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