Captain Jack's Woman

Devil's Bride

A Rake's Vow

A Rogue's Proposal

Scandal's Bride

A Secret Love

All About Love by Stephanie Laurens
(Avon, $6.99, R) ISBN 0-380-81201-0
This is the latest book in Stephanie Laurens' series about the Bar Cynster, six outrageously attractive cousins determined to enjoy life to the fullest - and hang onto their freedom with both hands. Tradition has it that the Cynsters are "cursed" to marry women they love passionately. As a result, they are in thrall to their mates to a degree that bachelor Cynsters find appalling. Until it happens to themů

Fresh from the wedding of his brother Gabriel, Lucifer Cynster finds himself the only member of the club still unattached and decides to leave London without delay. His beloved mentor, Horatio Melham, has asked him to visit and appraise a mysterious object of great rarity and value, so Lucifer heads for the hills, literally and figuratively, to safeguard his freedom in "deepest Devon."

Upon arriving, Lucifer discovers poor Horatio in his study, stabbed to death. He has not yet discovered that fate, in the form of Phyllida Tallent, is hiding behind the door, wondering if Lucifer is the murderer returning to the scene of the crime. Phyllida, daughter of the local magistrate, was conducting a clandestine search of Horatio's home to recover some highly indiscreet letters written by her friend Mary Anne.

The search for the letters, the search for the mysterious object, and the search for the murderer create an exceptionally deft and effective framework for the growing relationship between Lucifer and Phyllida, neither of whom is remotely interested in acquiring a mate. There is also a complete cast of excellent secondary characters who entertain and further the plot in their own right. It's a complex and multi-layered story - strongly written and fully developed. Occasionally, though, I'll admit I found myself hurrying through it to get back to the protagonists.

Because when they're together, steam practically rises from the print. Ms. Laurens is really, really good at this.

Phyllida, at 24, is the backbone of the village, solving everyone's problems with unruffled aplomb. Satisfied with her life just as it is, Lucifer is the first man who has ever disturbed her self-control. To her surprise, she finds herself fascinated by their mutual physical desire, and by the realization that he wishes to protect her. The competent Phyllida has never experienced either, and it's lovely to watch her discover the pleasures of both with the right man.

In fact, unlike anyone else she knows, Lucifer sees Phyllida as a complete woman, with needs as well as strengths - needs Lucifer is anxious to explore further. Although she thinks his interest is driven by his desire to solve Horatio's murder, she decides to enjoy what may be her only opportunity to learn about real passion. Best of all, while she revels in each lesson, sex doesn't reduce her to a blithering idiot.

Lucifer's character is also wonderfully free of stereotypes. He knows from the beginning that Phyllida is hiding something from him, yet he never concludes that she must therefore be a dishonest schemer. He uses his eyes and his brain (a sex organ too often overlooked) and sees her essential goodness. His insight into Phyllida is as seductive as his lovemaking, and that's saying a lot.

Lucifer is a strong, sophisticated and romantic hero who definitely heats up the page, although I regret to say he's not always perfectly three-dimensional. I'd have liked to rummage around in his head a little more, especially as he reverses his strongly held opinions about commitment.

In his favor, he's charmingly perplexed by the strength of his desire for this unlikely candidate. He's also a little miffed that passion doesn't seem to muddy her thinking for long - but we forgive him. Cynsters are used to women falling at their feet, after all and, having come to Devon to escape entanglements, Lucifer has enough wit to see the irony in desiring the self-contained Phyllida. "Being so easily aroused by a gently reared, intelligent and stubborn virgin, one who was making no effort to attract him at all, had to be fate's idea of a joke."

Maybe, but that's what made it so very entertaining to watch, as these two skeptics discover why even free spirits offer up their wrists when love holds out the shackles.

--Judi McKee

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