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The Unrepentant Rake
by Melinda McRae
(Signet, $4.99, PG) ISBN 0-451-19779-6
****
A blizzard is raging. The roads are hazardous. A group of ill-assorted people find themselves marooned together in a lonely country house. Suddenly, strange things begin to happen. Are these harmless pranks or are they the prelude to some darker deed? Is there a potential murderer on the prowl?

Melinda McRae has taken this familiar mystery plot and transported it to Regency England, thus creating an enjoyable tale of mystery and romance.

The group who find themselves at Thornhill Manor would never have met in the ordinary course of events. The host is the notorious rake, Simon, Earl of Milford. He had been enjoying a pleasant stay in the country with two of his friends and their lights o' love when unexpected guests start arriving. Those benighted by the weather include Miss Ariel Tennant and her disapproving aunt, the Mr. Horace Blakenose, purveyor of fine foodstuffs, his wife Euphemia and her obnoxious dog Blinky, and three young sprigs of fashion.

Ariel, our heroine, is a lively young lady of twenty-one, the sister of a viscount. Her come-out has been delayed by untimely deaths in the family, but come spring she will be on her way to London to enter upon the Marriage Mart. Although her aunt faints when she discovers at whose house they have sought shelter, Ariel is intrigued by the idea of meeting a real rake and his less than reputable guests.

The earl our unrepentant rake is much taken by the attractive young lady. When one of the early pranks finds the two locked in a cellar (where they have gone in search of the missing Blinky), the two share a surprisingly enjoyable kiss. Well, surprising for him, as he has never trifled with innocence. Ariel simply finds it enjoyable. The two are thrown together still more often as they join forces to try to uncover the prankster. When the pranks turn more dangerous, Ariel and Milford become allies against an unknown threat.

The hero is a familiar Regency figure: a man unjustly stigmatized by society who then seeks to live down to expectations. What began as a pleasant flirtation soon comes to mean much more to Simon, but he is convinced of his own unworthiness to aspire to the love of such a sweet and lovely young woman. Ariel, for her part, soon comes to understand that much of Milford's behavior is a mere facade, that there is beneath the surface a man who is much finer than he himself can be brought to understand. That he is also handsome, kind, interesting, and caring makes it perhaps inevitable that she should fall in love.

I almost didn't recommend The Unrepentant Rake. I found the pair's early pursuit of the prankster somewhat unconvincing. Nor did I feel that McRae did as much as she might have with her setting. But the story picked up steam at the end, and since I liked the hero and heroine, found the other characters interesting, and enjoyed the romance, I decided that other Regency fans might share my appreciation. This is not McRae at her excellent best, but it is an entertaining read.

--Jean Mason


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