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The Lady in Gray by Patricia Oliver
(Signet, $4.99, PG) ISBN 0-451-19500-0
****
What happens to the daughter of an earl when she is seduced and abandoned by a rake named Matthew Farnaby, who went through a sham marriage ceremony and yet fled when her father found them in an inn? She gets sent to far away Cornwall to live with her unconventional aunt, condemned to a life of spinsterhood. This is the fate of seventeen year old Lady Sylvia Sutherland in Patricia Oliver's enjoyable new Regency romance.

Ten years later, Lady Sylvia has accepted her fate. She has honed her talents as an artist, found a place for herself in local society, and fended of the advances of all those "gentlemen" who believe that having once strayed, a woman is fair game for their lascivious advances. She believes herself content, yet when the newly returned Earl of Longueville orders her from his property and refers to her unflatteringly as a "redheaded ape-leader of dubious breeding," she is not surprisingly incensed.

Nicholas Morley reacts so strongly to seeing a young woman painting on the cliffs of his estate because it brings back memories he has spent a decade trying to erase. Ten years earlier his new wife Angelica had fallen to her death near the very spot where Sylvia was painting. Rumors or suicide or even murder had driven the earl to flee his native Cornwall and to embark on a very successful business career in India. Now he has returned to take up his position and to get on with the business of finding a second wife. He needs an heir so that his dissolute cousin, Matthew Farnaby, will not inherit the title and estate.

Nicholas had been madly in love with his beautiful bride, attracted in part by her unconventional behavior and her passionate nature. But when she died, he had already become aware that Angelica was no angel. He is certainly not about to make a woman with a tainted past his new countess. But he finds on further acquaintance that Sylvia is a most attractive woman and concludes that she would make a fine mistress.

For her part, Sylvia is attracted to the brooding, harsh-faced man who arouses in her feelings she had buried ten years earlier. But she is also aware that any relationship can only lead to further heartache.

The return of the earl re-ignites discussion about the countess and her death and, with her artist's sensibilities, Sylvia begins to sense something about the true events that surrounded her death. And she begins to discover more about the amoral young woman who had created such havoc in the three short months she was Countess of Longueville.

Oliver handles the relationship between two strong people who have both suffered from the unforgiving strictures of Regency society with a deft hand. And she uncovers the facts about the decade-old tragedy in such a way as to keep the reader turning the pages. In Sir Matthew Farnaby, she creates a memorable and frightening villain.

Careful thought after the fact suggests to this reader that there are some holes and inconsistencies in the plot. But these fade to insignificance when compared to the reader's involvement in both the story and the characters.

The Lady in Gray kept me up reading way past my bedtime. I had to find out what had happened and I had to discover how the villain would be punished and how the hero and heroine would discover and admit their true feelings for each other. I believe that Regency romance fans will enjoy this intense, fast-paced and well written story. I have rarely been disappointed in Oliver's Regencies and she did not disappoint me with The Lady in Gray.

--Jean Mason


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