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Devil's Bride by Stephanie Laurens
(Avon, $5.99, R) ISBN 0-380-79456-X
*****
There's good news and bad news. The bad news first: the people at Avon have done this book a big disservice by sticking an icky Renaissance pirate/vampire picture on the back cover. Maybe (and that's a big maybe) the male model resembles the hero, but the female model's nothing like the heroine's description in the book.

Now that I've gotten the bad news out of the way, I can give you the good news: This book is fantastic! The plot's intriguing; the characters are engaging; the passion's hot (really hot); the writing's exceptional. This is a contender for romance novel of the year. No kidding.

And more good news: there are six Cynster cousins so there should be five more books coming. I hope Ms. Laurens writes fast.

At twenty-four Honoria Anstruther-Wetherby is a finishing governess in Regency-era England; that is, she works with girls in the final year before their come-out in order to enable them to snag a good marriage catch.

While driving through the woods in a gig, Honoria sees the body of a badly wounded young man by the side of the road. While she is investigating, her horse shies at the sound of thunder and runs away leaving Honoria alone. At short time later a handsome man on a powerful horse comes upon her and identifies the unconscious, injured man as his cousin Tolly. Together Honoria and the attractive stranger find shelter for the gravely wounded man in a nearby cottage. During the stormy night Tolly dies. The handsome stranger discovers Honoria's identity and easily accepts that the circumstances of their being alone together will require them to marry.

The next day Honoria learns that her companion is Sylvester Cynster, the sixth Duke of St. Ives, who is commonly called Devil. Contrary to Devil's expectations, Honoria refuses to accept the necessity of their marriage. She does not work because she is impoverished and needs the money but in order to occupy her time until she feels she's old enough to follow Hester Stanhope's example in exploring Africa. She has resolved never to marry or have children. Devil is equally resolved that she will marry him. Honoria is forced to remain with his mother, the Dowager, until she can join her brother; in the meantime she becomes involved with his family and assumes responsibilities during the funeral. Devil gains the cooperation of Honoria's brother to extend her stay during which time he can convince her to marry him.

Honoria is distressed that Devil seems to accept Tolly's death so calmly, and she decides to investigate in hopes of discovering the murderer. Devil, however, has not calmly accepted Tolly's murder, and he and five of his cousins (all with similarly demonic nicknames, known as the Bar Cynster) have joined together to uncover the villain's identity. Against Devil's wishes, Honoria assumes an active role in this endeavor as danger threatens their growing attachment.

This brief plot synopsis can't reveal the intensity of this story or the quality of the character development. This book has it all.

Honoria is my kind of heroine: confident, capable, determined. Devil is my kind of hero: sexy, skilled, forceful. Together they're explosive. Honoria and Devil have some of the most heart-pounding love scenes ever written, pages and pages of sensuous encounters. (Keep a cold drink handy.) And it's not just sex: their emotions are as involved as their bodies. I wondered how Honoria resisted Devil's convincing so long. I'm sure that in her position I would have been convinced much, much sooner.

Several of the secondary characters are nearly as well drawn as the main characters, but this is clearly Honoria's and Devil's book.

The identity of the villainous murder is fairly obvious, but that doesn't diminish the plot's suspense. The question becomes not who's the villain but how are they going to catch him? And as complication piles on complication, Honoria and Devil are thrown together. In this book, the plot's strong, but the romance is stronger.

I bought this book on the recommendation of another romance reader perusing the shelves at the bookstore. (Thank you.) Laurens is a new writer to me even though the inside back cover states that she has written a number of Regencies and one other historical novel. With talent like this, I wonder how I haven't heard of her before. From now on, she's a writer I'll buy on name alone.

--Lesley Dunlap


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