The Hired Hero by Andrea Pickens
(Signet, $4.99, PG) ISBN 0-451-19692-9
Do you like your Regency romance filled with adventure and derring-do? Do you like "outspoken, clever and fearless" heroines? (To quote the back blurb.) Do you like valiant if somewhat reluctant heroes? Do you like romances forged in the heat of danger? If you do, then you'll really like The Hired Hero.

Lady Caroline Talcott receives a most puzzling missive from her absent father, the Duke of Cheviot. He instructs her to leave immediately for London and to travel incognito by back roads. Once in town, she is to seek out her uncle and stay with him. Before Caroline can follow these instructions, a courier arrives at the ducal estate. He has been attacked en route, but has managed to make his way to his destination, but he dies before he can explain his mission.

Caroline knows that her father is deeply involved in the struggle against Napoleon. She recognizes the importance of the dispatch. So she decides to take it to London herself. On the way, her coach is attacked, her coachman murdered, and she saves herself from certain death by jumping from the careening vehicle. Fleeing from the scene, she painfully makes her way through a wood, only to faint from the effort. When she comes to, she finds herself in the arms of a disreputable looking fellow and promptly bloodies his nose. Then she faints again.

When she awakes, she is safely tucked into bed in a strange house. She discovers that her rescuer is the Earl of Davenport, a man with a simply dreadful reputation. She's wrong about one thing. Yes, she has been rescued by Davenport, but it is not the evil Charles but his twin brother Julian.

Julian had inherited the title and family estate four months earlier, but it was no windfall. His brother, like his father before him, had been a gambler and a wastrel and an all round nasty piece of work. Indeed, Julian's own reputation had suffered at his brother's hands. Now he faces the daunting task of trying to restore the family's property and its name. When Caroline offers him the princely sum of 1000 to be her escort to London he accepts, little realizing the dangers he and the dauntless young lady will face on the journey.

Caroline is not your typical Regency miss. As the duke's only child, she had been treated and educated more like a boy than a girl. She accepts that she is different from most young women and has concluded that no man can possibly love such a singular creature. For his part, Julian is convinced that a penniless earl with a tarnished reputation should not aspire to the hand of a duke's daughter. So neither feels free to act on their strong attraction to each other.

Pickens has a good feel for Regency society and behavior. She provides an interesting cast of secondary characters, including the duke and his heir who know Caroline may be in danger and are trying to get home from the continent to discover who the traitor may be. There are those who help Caroline and Julian as they navigate their dangerous way to London and those who hinder them. And then there is the nasty villain whose menacing presence keeps the mood suspenseful.

All in all, The Hired Hero is a fast-paced, entertaining read. Pickens is another relatively new Regency author whose writing style and storytelling ability prove that the genre continues to attract talented writers. Regency fans will enjoy this book, but then so will anyone who appreciates a delightful story full of adventure and romance.

--Jean Mason

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