Adam's Promise

Love According to Lily

Portrait of a Lover

Prairie Bride

To Marry the Duke

 
Surrender to a Scoundrel
by Julianne MacLean
(Avon, $6.99, R) ISBN 0-06-081936-7
*****
Finally, a title that fits the story! Here’s your scoundrel: Lord Martin Langdon, at Cowes on the Isle of Wight sailing for his third yachting championship in a row. Lord Martin, younger brother to a duke, is England’s most celebrated sportsman. He is charming in public, a hero to the children, etc., and the gossip is that the champion racer appreciates a fast woman as much as a fast boat. He was also quite a hothead in his earlier life: before he settled into winning championships, he managed to wreck the first two yachts his brother had bought him.

Who’s going to surrender? Maybe Evelyn Wheaton (née Foster): a prim, proper, 26-year old vicar’s widow. She’s believed to be the wealthiest widow in England, having inherited her father’s millions. Evelyn is spending the week at the yacht races, which she hopes will prove to be a perfect hunting ground for a respectable, possibly titled, husband. She will put her millions to work and buy herself a husband, so she can have a life filled with children and laughter and a home of her own. She is realistic about what she has to offer, and is grateful for what the millions add to what she believes to be her otherwise scant charms.

Lord Martin and Mrs. Wheaton are not strangers, though; they have had two unusual, if quite memorable, encounters in the past. When she was 10, he pulled her out of the freezing water when she had fallen through the ice; when she was 16, she accompanied a friend on an ill-fated excursion to his room at Eton that led to his suspension. She has always been fascinated by him, considering him to be her hero for the rescue, but uncertain if he even remembered it or her. He has been fascinated by her as well, but annoyed as hell that she seemed not to remember him (and after he risked life and limb to rescue her!), and that she was always looking down her nose at him (if she bothered to meet his gaze at all). And here she is at Cowes, where she is viewed as the second trophy to be won during race week. Expected to do well in the hunt for both prizes is Lord Breckenridge, who has commissioned an extraordinary yacht that will strongly challenge Martin for the first trophy. Further, Evelyn is at Cowes with Breckenridge’s uncle, a friend of Evelyn’s late father, who would be thrilled to see his nephew bag this prize as well.

Fine with Martin; he doesn’t want to compete for that prize. He is, however, challenged by the word “impossible,” and it has been reported that the respectable vicar’s widow is impossible to flirt with. Then they meet, and they are back where they were before: fascinated, secretly thrilled, and openly challenged by each other. They have the week before the race to see where this goes.

Surrender to a Scoundrel is such a “formula” title – both surrender and scoundrel appear on dozens of books on my shelves – but the book itself is as far from formulaic as possible. First, this is not your standard Regency era setting; yacht racing was not a popular sport until later in the century, with the first “America’s Cup” trophy awarded at Cowes in 1851. The book is set in 1891, and MacLean’s late Victorian England is beautifully drawn and detailed; she has perfectly captured the period when almost-turn-of-the-century modernity clashed with the exceedingly stuffy and proper era named for and epitomized by Queen Victoria.

Just as enjoyable as the setting are the characters: Martin and Evelyn are the most interesting, complex and loveable characters to grace the page in recent memory. It is impossible not to root wholeheartedly for them, particularly in the face of the realistic, and seemingly insurmountable, obstacles placed in their path, not to mention the traumas in their pasts. They so dominate the story, however, that there is scarcely room for anyone else; the secondary characters are certainly more sketchy, but not annoyingly so.

The real joy, though, is following the plot, which takes a number of unexpected turns; there is more than one “Whoa, didn’t see that one coming!” moment. Aside from the HEA, there is very little that is predictable here. Can’t say more without spoiling it, but be prepared to be shaken (and stirred) by the twists, and to really wonder how the author is going to pull this off and get them to their HEA.

So, to recap: 1 – pitch-perfect, unusual setting; 2 – charming, beautifully drawn characters; 3 – surprising, unpredictable, but realistic plot; 4 – a title that matches the story! This brings you to a 5 for virtual perfection.

--Laura Scott


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