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A Rake's Vow

Scandal's Bride by Stephanie Laurens
(Avon, $5.99, R) ISBN 0-380-89568-5
There has already been considerable discussion on the lists about Stephanie Laurens' latest entry in her Bar Cynster series. What is striking is the polarization of opinion. It seems as if readers either love this book or they dislike it intensely. Obviously, I like it well enough to recommend it. But I also must admit that there were certain aspects of the book that I found less than completely satisfactory. Sometimes, interestingly, what I liked and what I had problems with were one and the same.

Take the love scenes. Laurens has a real talent for writing sensuous and compelling love scenes. Indeed, the first such scene in the novel, when the virginal heroine drugs the hero with a sleeping potion and an aphrodisiac and proceeds to seduce him, lasts for eleven scintillating pages. And this is just the first of many, many such scenes. (Well, she only drugs him once.) In bed, in a chair, in a tub, on a chaise, in a carriage, in the stable, on horseback, in every imaginable position and a couple that I can't quite visualize. Frankly, by the end of the book, I was getting a bit jaded by it all.

The plot also left me a bit ambivalent. Catriona Hennessey is the Lady of the Vale, a secluded but extremely productive valley in the Scottish lowlands. In the Vale of Casphairn, the ancient worship of the Lady still prevails and Catriona is her chief priestess. She is also a healer of great talent. Not surprisingly, she is viewed by many as a witch.

A face has appeared to Catriona in a dream, a strong, handsome face with striking blue eyes. And a message from the Lady has told her that "This man will father your children." But Catriona is confused. The women in her family have always ruled and thus have always chosen gentle and accommodating consorts. The man in her vision is clearly not the kind of man to accept a subservient role.

When Catriona is called to the reading of her guardian's will, she finds the man of her vision also present. He is also the man who stole a passionate kiss from her when they were both staying at the same inn the previous night. Her uncle's will comes as a shock. Unless Catriona agrees to marry this man, Richard Cynster, within a week, all of her cousins will be disinherited.

Catriona is certain that Richard will not follow the will's dictates. She is also certain that he is not the man she should marry. But if the Lady has decreed that he will father her children, well, that can be arranged. Hence the scene described above.

Richard does not play the unwitting pawn in anyone's schemes. He is already much taken by the lovely Catriona. And, as it happens, he does not drink the potion the second and third night (Catriona is taking no chances) and so is wide awake when she arrives in his room. He is not letting this one get away. To Catriona's amazement and to the delight of her cousins, Richard accepts the terms of the will and forces Catriona to agree as well. But he vows that he will respect her role as Lady of the Vale.

Having gotten them bedded and wedded, Laurens must then sustain her story for the remaining half of the book. She does a good job detailing the problems that this unusual agreement creates. Richard is a man of action, but he has promised not to interfere. Catriona is determined to prove that she is mistress and fears that Richard will tire of rural life and seek the delights of London. She does not understand that he needs to feel that he belongs somewhere and to someone because of the unusual circumstances of his birth. Laurens flirts with a "big misunderstanding" scenario, but fortunately does not draw it out too long.

But, having settled their problems with one-third of the book to go, Laurens depends on melodramatic dangers to Richard, which I, at least, found less compelling. She also manages to introduce the rest of the Cynster clan into her story.

My problems with the plot? Partly, I guess I am not as fond of fantastical and mystical plot devices as some readers although Laurens handled these very well. And somehow, the plot seemed contrived at times.

Still, I liked the characters very much. Catriona is a strong, determined woman who must learn that depending on someone can in fact make one stronger. Richard is a strong man who can accept a strong woman, my favorite kind of hero.

Laurens is an excellent writer who tells a good story, creates interesting characters, and writes compelling love scenes. Scandal's Bride should please readers who have enjoyed the first two installments of the Cynster saga and should provide a good introduction to the Bar Cynster for those who have not yet made their acquaintance.

--Jean Mason

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