A Desperate Game
by Barbara Pierce
(Zebra, $4.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-8217-6479-9
***
Tessa Belanger is in a great deal of trouble. Her loathsome husband, the Earl of Lathom, lies dead with a knife in his chest, and her mother, the Earl's mistress, lies dead beside him. Tessa is suspected of committing the crime. Fleeing for her life, she is attacked by thieves, and saved only by the intervention of another nobleman.

So opens A Desperate Game, the debut romance by new author Barbara Pierce. This is a book that shows a great deal of promise, though the characters behave incomprehensibly at times and some aspects of the plot are a bit shopworn.

Tessa's initial meeting with Reave Alden, Earl of Wycke and Prosecutor for the Crown, is a good example. She's rescued from thieves by Reave, but upon spying the crest on his coach, quickly turns and escapes at a run through the streets of London with only a locket to pay for whatever accommodations she can come up with. And the reason? Her husband was a louse, and therefore all noblemen are bad.

Tessa and Reave eventually meet up again at his country home, where Tessa has been brought after a chance meeting with Reave's good friend, Kim Farrell. Reave avoids his home and his small son, Jason, and the reader is told it's because he still mourns the death of his wife. This was a plot point that didn't work for me. Reave frets that his son is like a stranger, yet he avoids spending time with him? What kind of a father is this guy? Tessa, predictably, instantly bonds with Jason. Yet when she overhears a conversation between Reave and Kim in which Reave suggests that she's a strumpet, out for what she can get, Tessa decides to run away.

Reave then chases her down, brings her back to his home, and proceeds to wonder about this secretive young woman. Tessa is sure that he'll eventually find her out. Since she has no idea who killed her husband, and since she is sure that she'll be blamed, she fabricates a past to try and cover her tracks.

Okay, the initial plot had some holes in it. But what is very promising about A Desperate Game is the mystery surrounding the death of Tessa's husband. Who really killed him? The guy was a swine, so readers can take their pick of suspects, and we aren't totally sure until the end exactly who did kill him. It could even be Tessa. What will Reave do when he finds out who she really is? Especially since he's falling in love with her?

Tessa, for her part, is torn. She wants to trust Reave. Her instincts and her past experiences, however, tell her to keep him at a distance. As she becomes more and more entwined in the lives of Reave and Jason, it's harder and harder to do so. Although her initial actions smacked of immaturity, Tessa wises up (and grows up) throughout the course of the story.

Readers who like a historical romance with a thread of suspense would do well to check out A Desperate Game. Barbara Pierce has offered up a respectable debut with an intriguing hint of things to come.

--Cathy Sova


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