The Runaway Duke

 
Beauty & the Spy
by Julie Anne Long
(Warner Forever, $6.50, PG) ISBN 0-446-61686-9
***
Beauty and the Spy sets up what appears to be a series about three sisters, separated when young. Their father is Robert Lockwood, a politician who discovers that another politician, a man named Morley, is a spy for the French against the English. Lockwood is killed before he can prove it - presumably by Morley. A friend, James Makepeace, notifies Lockwood’s mistress (and mother of the three girls) to flee, as she is being framed for the murder. The girls are left in Makepeace’s hands. We are then introduced to Susannah, who knows nothing of this. She is the youngest daughter and the beauty of the title. She grows up thinking she is Makepeace’s daughter, even though she realizes that she and he don’t quite connect on any emotional level. The fate of the other girls is unknown - hence the reason for the series.

Susannah is now in her late teens (it never really says, but she is on the marriage mart) and Makepeace decides to pursue Lockwood’s assertions, so he looks for the proof Lockwood hid all those years ago. Before Makepeace can complete the mission, he is killed. Susannah is left penniless and her fiancé deserts her when he discovers her circumstances. She is forced to go live in the country near Barnstable with an elderly aunt whom she only recently discovered.

Kit Whitelaw, a viscount, has been exiled to his family’s estate in Barnstable by his father who fears he will do something stupid. Kit, you see, is a government agent and spy. He is in between assignments and has been doing nothing but drinking and trying to seduce a countess, who happens to be married. He was so bored he even called a well-connected agent “an idiot,” which was apparently true but not very politically astute. His choice was exile to the country or a post in Egypt. Kit chooses the country to complete an exploration of the flora and fauna and a folio that his father will expect to see within a few months.

Once in Barnstable, Kit and Susannah meet. They seem much more polished than the local gentry, which they are. Susannah has never been poor and quickly realizes how privileged her life has been. She has a lot of growing up to do, and even more so when she begins to suspect that someone is trying to kill her. Kit realizes it first and is determined to protect her. He knew James Makepeace and begins to put the pieces of the puzzle together regarding Morley and Lockwood. Now he too is in danger. Kit uses his task as a way to keep Susannah at his side when he discovers her vastly superior ability to sketch and draw.

The story is slow to start, primarily because of all the background that has to be laid for the intrigue to make sense. This part of the book is slow and difficult to keep reading. However, once the groundwork is complete, the tale picks up in pace and in romantic intensity, thus engaging the reader. Because this is a series, there are many threads left dangling. However, the primary romance is well written and entertaining from about the 150-page mark on. That is a lot of pages to wade through for the story to really get started, but if a reader stays with it, there is a lot to like.

Kit has depth, more so than one would think from the description given at the beginning. He has things from his past to rehash and figure out how to grow from. He does this admirably while slowly falling in love with Susannah. Susannah seems relatively ditzy at first, being concerned about how important it is that her gown match her ribbons. Her coming of age begins when she recognizes how little she knows how to do if there are no servants around to do them and how frivolous her previous life was. She grows up fast and shows surprising strengths when faced with adversity. She blossoms as she grows up in more than just her looks.

Susannah and Kit are well matched in sarcasm, humor and an appreciation of things neither thinks anyone else would or could appreciate. They treat each other as equals and work together to solve the mystery. Their relationship is fun to watch develop. It seems natural that they would soon show their feelings by making love. They truly fall more in love than in lust, a refreshing change from so many stories these days.

There are a few things that seem unrealistic. They are alone most of the time they are in the woods searching for the items to sketch, generally with the aunt’s approval. This was convenient to the story, but a young girl with an unmarried rake would have been ruined in most other stories. Here the neighbors pay them little if any attention. They also travel alone to London and other towns doing research, and no one seems to find anything amiss.

A parallel story involving Kit and two people from his past connected to Susannah’s story and yet, at times, these two plotlines seemed incongruent. Maybe they will provide more connections in the rest of the series, but I found it to be mainly something to fill the page rather than an integral part of the present story.

Beauty and The Spy has some early moments that had me scratching my head and wondering how I could get through the entire novel. Then the romance and the mystery seemed to pick up and come together for a relatively satisfying ending. It was good enough that I am curious to look for the next installment to see what happened to Susannah’s sisters. I hope it doesn’t take as long to get off the ground, though.

--Shirley Lyons


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