My Dark Prince

Night of Sin

The Seduction

Games of Pleasure
by Julia Ross
(Berkley, $14.00, R) ISBN 0-425-20565-7
Lord Ryderbourne, eldest son and heir to the Duke of Blackdown, has proposed to the well-born young lady of his choice only to be told that she’s accepted the suit of another. Humiliated and angry, he’s riding along a cliff overlooking the sea near the ducal seat of Wyldshay. He sees a dinghy in the surf, without oars, heading toward the rocks. He glimpses something in the dinghy and realizes there’s someone in it. Heroically riding to the rescue, he saves the dinghy from destruction and the woman inside from probable death.

The woman has been badly beaten; Ryder demands to know who did it. She gives a false name and tries to avoid any explanations. He comes to believe that she’s been beaten by her husband. He takes her to an inn to recover where she still refuses to tell her story but says that she will share it with him by morning. They spend a passionate night together. The next morning she is gone ... leaving him with the bill for a horse and other items. Later he reads the note she left.

My name is Miracle Heather.

I am London’s most notorious harlot.

When you found me in the boat, I had just murdered a man.

Thank you for all you have done or offered to do for me, my lord, but you are well rid of me.

Ryder cannot put her out of his mind. The mystery haunts him. Determined to find out more, he heads to London where he learns that she has been the mistress of Lord Hanley who is searching for her. After a lifetime of devotion to duty, Ryder decides to abandon responsibility and embark on an adventure. Following Miracle’s trail, he meets up with her again and offers his assistance in clearing her name. Miracle cannot believe that anyone – even the powerful, influential Lord Ryderbourne – can save her, but nevertheless he begins to accompany her on her flight.

Meanwhile, Lord Hanley is determined to track her down and see her hanged for murder. He quickly figures out they’re together and is coming ever closer.

Countless romance novels have featured the rake-saved-by-the-love-of-a-virtuous-woman plot. In Games of Pleasure, author Julia Ross turns that plot on its head. The heroine is the sinner; the hero is virtue personified. His mother says, “He is pure gold at the core.” It’s hard to improve on that assessment. Ryder is what a romance hero is supposed to be: honorable, brave, committed, generous. And amazingly, he doesn’t have a past history that he can’t share with his mother.

As the poet John Milton’s Paradise Lost famously demonstrates, the virtuous life may be preferable to one of vice, but it’s hard to present it in literature as the more appealing. Ms. Ross’s accomplishment is not only to convince the reader that Ryder is a genuinely good man but to make him interesting at the same time. His principal fault is that when it comes to Miracle he’s far too gullible. Time after time she’s able to lull his suspicions then steal away. On the other hand, it’s because he sees her as a woman of integrity even knowing her past that he’s able to fall in love with her when others see her as tarnished and unworthy of redemption.

Miracle is more than just the stereotypical whore with a heart of gold. Her low-class origins condemned her at a young age to a sordid existence, and she has struggled merely to survive. She’s not unprincipled, just realistic about her prospects. She wants to separate herself from Ryder because she fears what their association can mean for him. Even so, she knows the man he is and cannot help falling in love with him.

I have read other books with a lord-and-beggar-girl plot and remained skeptical to the end. What distinguishes Games of Pleasure is that even with the great disparity of birth and fortune between Ryder and Miracle, I became convinced that these two truly love each other and belong together. Their story is a triumph of character development.

There are a few authors I read for the pure enjoyment of their use of language – Laura Kinsale and Laura London (aka Sharon and Tom Curtis) among them. Julia Ross is another such author. Her writing is so exquisite that at times it rises to the level of art.

Silence flooded the shadows. Absolute quiet flowed over the rug on the floor, eddied up into myriad tiny crevices, filled the jug on the washstand. As if pain had been poured like liquid crystal into the air, the hush filled her ears until she heard only the unbearable beat of her own heart.

“No, of course, you would not want me,” he said at last.

The R-rating for sensuality is a reflection of the intimacy between Ryder and Miracle, not its degree of explicitness. Readers who are turned off by the insert-tab-A-into-slot-B variety of sensuality will find this a welcome relief.

Games of Pleasure is the sequel to Night of Sin but stands well on its own. There are some references to events in the earlier story, but they don’t interfere with the flow of the narrative.

This is the latest in a succession of highly praised novels by this talented author. Games of Pleasure is one of the best romances of the year ... of the entire decade.

--Lesley Dunlap

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