The Devil and Miss Webster
by Julia Parks
(Zebra Regency, $4.99, rated G) ISBN 0-8217-6900-6
The Devil and Miss Webster is saved from one-heart status by virtue of its easygoing and attractive hero. The heroine, however, is quite another matter, and I couldn’t finish with her fast enough. Add pacing that lumbers along at the speed of a snail, and this ends up being a book that failed to satisfy.

Eleanor Webster, age thirty-four, has been living with Lady Laura Ransom for eleven years, first as a governess and then as a companion. Lady Laura is now a widow with three young children, and Eleanor is the person behind the successful running of the estate. One scene with the ninnyhammer Laura in it will convince the reader this is perfectly logical. But Laura has a secret. Seems that her youngest son, Simon, is the product of a brief affair with a neighbor, Victor Taylor, embarked upon in reaction to her late husband’s neglect and indifference. Taylor has been blackmailing Laura for a while. Laura, terrified because red-haired Simon looks just like Taylor, has been paying him in jewelry and pin money. But now he wants a plot of land, so she confesses all to Eleanor.

And intelligent, capable, level-headed Eleanor… immediately agrees to the blackmail demand. If Simon is determined not to be the heir, then the estate will pass to Simon’s uncle, Stephen Ransom, a former soldier now back in England. Eleanor and her beloved charges would no doubt be tossed out in the street, so to speak.

Stephen Ransom arrives in London and gets an earful from the family solicitor, who demands he get rid of Miss Webster. Stephen decides to hold a Christmas house party at the estate, where he can observe Miss Webster and see if she’s a bad influence or not. The presence of several old army buddies should make the event palatable.

Eleanor’s reaction to Stephen’s arrival is to be about as unpleasantly rude to him as it’s possible to be, then run from the room. Great behavior for a 34-year-old woman, no? She insults him again at their second meeting, then

Her brave front fleeing, she acknowledged, not for the first time, that she would always find it difficult to confront a hostile man.

Um, Eleanor? Here’s a Regency news flash. If you weren’t obnoxious and insulting to him, he probably wouldn’t be hostile.

Stephen, of course, finds there’s much more to Miss Webster than meets the eye, and he gradually begins to feel attracted to her. Eleanor decides Stephen isn’t so bad after all. The guests arrive for the house party, and one of them turns out to be a ghost from her past. And of course, Mr. Taylor isn’t done with his demands.

Eleanor Webster is a difficult character at best. She’s competent in estate management, but when faced with the obvious need to explain herself to the senior male member of the family, she withholds information that could explain everything in an instant. Of course, this book would then be a hundred pages shorter. Her past is revealed in dribs and drabs, but rather than tantalizing, it’s annoying, and when all is revealed, it’s a big yawn anyway. She jumps to conclusions, gets defensive at the drop of a hat, and at times is so rude to Stephen that I felt he’d be justified in ordering her out of the house.

Stephen is a much nicer character to be around. One of the most enjoyable threads of the story is his gradually getting to know his two nieces and small nephew, and realizing he likes being around kids. The former soldier makes a very fine uncle, indeed. And he’s reasonable, too; even when faced with Eleanor’s apparent deceptions, he’s willing to give her the benefit of the doubt until he finds out the truth.

There are long passages where nothing much happens in this story, as the guests hang around the estate, the kids go sledding, they all go to a fair…and at nearly all of these, either Stephen or Eleanor finds reason to jump to false conclusions. I found myself fighting the urge to just flip ahead.

The blackmail thread pops up conveniently at the end, of course, and readers may groan at the pat resolution to the “illegitimate child” issue. Nothing new there. The scheming Other Woman gets a few amusing comeuppances, and a secondary romance between the featherheaded Laura and one of Stephen’s friends is sweet.

Overall, The Devil and Miss Webster was a lackluster read. It’s interesting to note that Zebra is apparently trying to “revamp” their Regency lineup by assigning new pen names to old authors. A month ago, it was Mona Gedney, who was being published under “Mona Prevel”. Here it’s “Julia Parks”, who is really Donna Bell on the copyright page. I don’t quite get this, since both Bell and Gedney are already Regency authors for Zebra anyway. Maybe we’re viewing the spread of Josie Litton Syndrome, where established authors without a huge following are going to try again under another name. Personally, I’d love to read some fresh voices in Regency, not just relabeled ones.

--Cathy Sova

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