What a Woman Needs
by Caroline Linden
(Zebra, $3.99, R) ISBN 0-8217-7930-3
****
Keeper bookshelves all over the country are swelled with the debut novels (often bought at astronomical prices) of now collectible authors. If Caroline Linden fulfills the promise of talent shown in What a Woman Needs, you might as well go and pick up a copy of this book now so you won’t be searching for it later.

Charlotte Griffolino has recently been made guardian of her deceased brother’s daughter, Susan Tratter. Having been disgraced by a fortune hunter in her own youth, Charlotte is determined to protect Susan from a similar fate. Susan is resentful and defiant of Charlotte’s restrictions, and the minute Charlotte’s back is turned Susan takes up with the notorious rake, Stuart Drake.

Stuart Drake is indeed a fortune hunter, his father having recently cut off his allowance due to nasty gossip circulating about Stuart in London. He needs to marry an heiress, and quickly, or else he’ll lose his mortgaged estate. Stuart is pleased that the gossip has not reached Kent, and feels incredibly lucky to meet an heiress like Susan there. Susan is young, innocent and easily charmed into agreeing to marry Stuart.

When Charlotte learns of Susan and Stuart’s plan to marry, she contrives to meet Stuart before he has a chance to learn who she is or what she looks like. Secretly entering the darkened room where Susan and Stuart met privately to discuss their strategy, she overhears the conversation, and upon Susan’s departure immediately begins to seduce Stuart. Her plan works all too well.

Stuart cannot believe at first that the gorgeous woman he encounters can be the guardian that Susan describes as old and withered and spiteful. Realizing that Susan is now beyond him, Stuart decides to cut his losses and move on to another heiress, but is stymied by Charlotte when she spreads the London gossip around Kent. A sort of battle rages between them until they have to join forces to find Susan when she elopes with another man.

What a Woman Needs is a very good book. It’s not a great book, though, due to a couple of things that bugged me and might bug other readers as well. First, Charlotte is the widow of an old man with weird sexual tastes. As a consequence she’s a lot more experienced in the bedroom than most romantic heroines. Some of the acts and the number of men she later describes to Stuart were somewhat distasteful. Second is the amount of information related in the last couple of chapters of the book. After the climax, one series of conversations solves the puzzle of a decades old mystery, repairs relationships damaged many years ago and provides a means for Stuart to keep his estate if he still wants it. None of it is unbelievable, but it does feel rushed.

The chemistry between Stuart and Charlotte is hot. If you get bored with shy, virginal heroines, you’ll love Charlotte. She’s a grown woman, she’s been around, she knows what she likes, and what she likes is Stuart. The love scenes are excellently written, sensuous and entertaining.

The plot isn’t just about sex with Charlotte and Stuart, though. There’s a pretty good mystery and tricky family situations as well. The Regency setting is well described without being overpowering and the dialogue is very clever. The reader is often treated to the hero’s point of view, very skillfully written, and missing in too many romance novels.

Whether or not you keep it, What a Woman Needs is definitely what has been needed lately. Fast-paced, interesting books by new authors haven’t exactly been thick on the ground, and I hope Ms. Linden has a lot more books for us.

--Wendy Livingston


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