Bound By Love

The Cad

The Choice

 
The Challenge by Edith Layton
(Harper, $5.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-06-101433-8
****
At the end of Edith Layton’s last book, The Choice, we were left with at least two characters who could be heroes of a new romance, Viscount Wycoff and Earl Drummond. Both had been suitors for the irrepressible Gilly’s heart. Both had been disappointed when she chose Damon Ryder. Had I been a betting woman, I would have wagered that Drum would be the hero of Layton’s next book. And, as usual, I would have been wrong. Instead the author has chosen to tell the story of Hathaway Wycoff. What a great choice!

Hathaway Wycoff is a most interesting hero. Married at a young age to a woman chosen by his parents, he had hoped for a loving marriage. Instead, he found himself tied to a woman who -- having presented him with the requisite heir and a daughter -- wanted only to pursue her own pleasures. So Wycoff followed suit, to such great effect that he became known in London as “The Lord of Adulterers.” His association with Gilly had brought home to him the barrenness of his life, so he chose to leave England and go to America for a fresh start.

We meet him and his friend and agent Geoff as they enter the Ames’ place of business. From Geoff’s description of the accommodations, Wycoff concludes that it is a bordello. In a most effective scene, we discover that it is in fact a most respectable hotel. But before Wycoff discovers his understandable error, he espies one of the women of the house and is immediately taken by her mature beauty, her confident air, and her witty conversation. Thus does Wycoff meet Lucy Stone.

Lucy Stone is a widow with a nine-year-old son. When she was nineteen, she met a handsome young naval lieutenant at a London ball and fell in love. Francis, the brother of Lord Hunt, was certainly eligible. But he was also a dreamer and his dreams took Lucy to America. His dreams also cost Francis his life, leaving his wife and infant son alone. Lucy had found refuge with the Ames’, her husbands distant cousins, and now works for them in the hotel.

The attraction between Wycoff and Lucy is instantaneous. “Mr.” Wycoff is a man from Lucy’s world. He is handsome, intelligent, interesting, and he creates in her feelings that she has buried for almost a decade. Lucy is, for Wycoff, a paradox, a new experience. Yes, she is from his world, but her years in America have made her very different from the London ladies he knows. She is frank and honest; she laughs heartily at the absurdities of the world; she bravely faces the challenges that life has brought. She is unique.

Their developing relationship, which looks very much like a new blooming courtship, is brought to an abrupt end when Lucy’s disappointed suitor discovers “Mr.” Wycoff’s true identity. While William’s accusations that Wycoff has a wife in London prove to be untrue -- his wife died in a carriage accident some six months earlier -- Lucy’s discovery of his title and his reputation cause her to pull away. She once followed her heart and put her life and happiness in a man’s hands, and look what happened. She dare not trust herself to a man who earned the title, “Lord of Adulterers.”

Lucy breaks off the relationship, but fate and her brother-in-law brings Lucy back to England and the two back together again.

I had a moment or two of doubts about Lucy’s motivations. Why should she turn her back on a man she had come to love just because of his notorious past? But then I remembered that while the reformed rake is dearly beloved by romance readers, this scenario might not work all that well in real life. Lucy’s actions then seemed less inexplicable.

The success of any romance, in my opinion, depends ultimately on the hero and in Wycoff, Layton has created an excellent hero. In his previous incarnation, he was an interesting character; in The Challenge he is fascinating. Now in his early forties, Wycoff has been shaped by his failed marriage. a failure that was clearly not his fault. He achieved his reputation as a rake because he was unwilling to play the game as society declared it should be played. He had been searching, perhaps unwittingly, for a woman who arouses both his passion and his respect. In Lucy, he has finally found this woman. The challenge is to convince her that he has reformed and will make her happy.

Perhaps it is my advanced age, but I do enjoy romances with mature heroes and heroines. Or perhaps my fondness lies in the fact that when both are older and experienced, there can be such yummy sexual tension in the story. The air certainly heats up when Wycoff and Lucy are together.

Edith Layton is a very fine writer. She knows Regency England like the back of her hand. She knows human nature and understands human behavior and motivation. All of this is apparent in The Challenge. I recommend this book without reservation.

Now, do we get Drum’s story next? Or is Rafe going to catch that charming miss he has been pursuing?

--Jean Mason


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