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Devil's Bride

The Promise in a Kiss

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A Secret Love

Secrets of a Perfect Night

Four in Hand by Stephanie Laurens
(Harlequin, $6.99, G) ISBN 0-373-83539-6
Four in Hand, a reprint of a 1999 Laurens Regency romance, is the story of a rake who unwillingly assumes guardianship of four lovely sisters, one of whom will steal his heart.

I think.

Max Rotherbridge, new Duke of Twyford, wakes up with a hangover one morning to find there is a visitor in the parlor. Caroline Twinning, recently returned from America with her three younger sisters, announces that Max is their guardian. Max scoffs - until it dawns on him that the guardianship of these young ladies did indeed pass to him when he assumed the title.

Max immediately decides to seduce Caroline, and what better way to keep her close to him than to act as her guardian? When he discovers that Caroline is twenty-five and legally is no longer under his guardianship, Max ponders whether he should tell Caroline the truth. He reasons that, if she is not under his wing, he won’t be able to seduce her as easily, so our Max takes the low road and lies to Caroline. As for her three gorgeous younger sisters, well, Max will turn the whole lot of them over to his aunt for their come-out in Society.

Sarah, Arabella, and Lizzie look to their older sister for guidance, and under Caroline’s intelligent leadership, the girls soon take the ton by storm. Unfortunately, their hearts are captured by four confirmed rakes. Caroline is fascinated by Max. Sarah falls for Darcy Hamilton, one of Max’s closest friends; Arabella is intrigued by a huge blond nobleman named Hugo; and Lizzie hooks up with Martin, Max’s younger brother.

None of these men want to marry, of course. Darcy plots Sarah’s seduction and finds he’s more attracted to her than he thought, and her refusal to succumb to his wishes drives him to frustration. Hugo barely registers, and Martin is enchanted by Lizzie’s generous heart. Max continues to plot and scheme to get Caroline in to his bed.

If it weren’t enough to keep track of these characters, the author brings in a side plot involving two sisters, another nobleman, and a country miss. The sisters get involved in an attempt to make their rakes jealous and force their hands. It was too much. Twelve characters running around trying to get page time meant that none of these “romances” was developed beyond the barest sketch, and the side plot took away from them even further. Forget about any of these people actually getting to know and understand one another. Everything is wrapped up in slapdash fashion at the end, and I believed in none of these “romances”.

Perhaps the most troubling character was Max. His calculated course of seduction felt, well, creepy given that Caroline was supposed to be under his protection. He comes across as petulant and spoiled when Caroline frustrates his plans (smart girl that she is). Max is just not hero material. Caroline deserved a lot better.

What starts as a potentially lighthearted romp sinks under the weight of too many characters and an unsatisfying resolution. Four in Hand may appeal to Laurens fans interested in her earlier work, but the stiff cover price for a reprinted and lackluster Regency is no bargain. Look for some of Laurens’ later works, instead.

--Cathy Sova

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