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Code of Honor by Andrea Pickens
(Signet, $4.99, PG) ISBN 0-451-19546-9
****
The plot is a familiar one: rake about town meets strong minded young woman past her first blush of youth. Rake finds woman strangely attractive. Rake pursues woman with less than honorable intentions.

I wrote these words just a couple of days ago about a different book. That particular telling of this popular storyline was not quite successful. Andrea Pickens has taken the same plot and turned out a most entertaining Regency romance.

Sebastian, Earl of Branford has a dire reputation. He has killed two men in duels, has cut a swath through the bored wives of London society, and is reputed to have caused his nephew's death in order to inherit the earldom. Not a man to trifle with. One late night at White's, he is drawn into a wager by the Earl of Hammerton.

It seems that there is a young woman just come to London who is "no better than she should be." She is outspoken, poorly chaperoned, and clearly fast since she an unmarried woman went to view the Elgin Marbles (all those nude men, you know.) Hammerton suggests that she is ripe for a spree and proposes that Branford can easily breech her nonexistent defenses. A bit "on the go" from having drunk quite a bit of brandy, Branford agrees to the bet.

Alexandra Chilton is not your usual debutante. At twenty-three, she has devoted herself to the study of botany and to her art: she is a notable watercolorist and has come to London primarily to determine if her paintings of plants and flowers can be published. She is also enjoying the opportunity to discuss her subject with other devotees.

Branford arranges an introduction to his prey, only to discover that she is an innocent and that she also shares his interest in gardens. (The gardens at his estate are famous.) Upon discovering Alexandra's true nature, he immediately cancels the bet. But having met this unusual young woman, he finds himself eager to pursue the acquaintance. For her part, Alex discovers that Sebastian is not quite the heartless rake that everyone believes him to be.

Nicely complimenting the romance is the mystery surrounding the accidents that Alex's young brother is experiencing with distressing regularity, a note in code that their father left after his "accidental" death, and why the Earl of Hammerton seems determined to drive the Chiltons out of London by fair means or foul (mostly foul.) And of course, there is the crisis when Alex finds out about the bet when her brother feels the need to defend her honor.

This is a well done Regency romance. It breaks no new ground. Sebastian is a familiar hero: tortured with guilt about his nephew's death and unable to accept a position he feels he does not deserve. Alex is a familiar heroine: a woman who does not fit comfortably into the confining strictures of Regency society but whose intelligence and personality win her the prize. The secondary characters are equally well drawn and equally interesting.

Code of Honor is a most satisfying Regency romance and I recommend it without reservations. Andrea Pickens is a welcome addition to the roster of authors who can successfully recreate the ever popular, ever intriguing world of Regency England.

--Jean Mason


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