Elusive Passion

A Seductive Offer

A Game of Scandal by Kathryn Smith
(Avon; $5.99, R) ISBN 0-06-050226-6
Romantic, smart, fast-paced and very readable - the only dull thing about this book is the clichťd clinch on the cover.

Returning to England after a decade in the New World establishing himself in business, Gabriel Warren, Earl of Angelwood, canít help thinking about the woman who demolished his heart before he left. He welcomes the distraction, therefore, when an old friend asks him to investigate a gambling club where the friendís son was cheated.

Although he was too ashamed to tell anyone outside his immediate family (including Lilith), Gabrielís father lost the family fortune and his life through his addiction to gambling. Gabe has spent the years since working secretly to make the estate solvent again. Now, if he can prove that a so-called reputable club is fleecing its patrons, it will help him enormously in his campaign to have gaming banned from England.

Gabe is shocked to discover that the club in question, Malloryís, is owned by Lilith Mallory - the woman who broke his heart. Lilith, whose reputation was destroyed when Gabe disappeared without a word right after they were discovered in flagrante delicto, spent the subsequent years banished to Italy with her beloved Aunt Imogen, returning only after the deaths of her parents and brother.

Many of you will undoubtedly be delighted to hear that the story does not turn on the obvious Big Misunderstanding; Gabe and Lilith soon discover they were mistaken in thinking that the other deliberately walked away from a commitment. Actually, theyíve got bigger problems. Even though it takes only one meeting to establish that their passion for each other is undiminished, heís still determined to eradicate gambling and sheís determined to hold on to her livelihood.

Further complicating the situation, a rival gambling house owner is threatening Lilith and will apparently do anything to put her out of business.

Itís a very neat piece of writing - the situation is complicated enough to allow the characters to grow and change while still providing the realistic difficulties and opportunities for conflict that keep a reader absorbed. It makes Gabeís life particularly interesting, caught as he is between wanting to protect the woman he loves from the threats against her business and her person, and wanting Malloryís shut down.

Gabe and Lilithís transition from enemies back to lovers also handled with a mixture of subtlety and aggression that makes for a page-turner. It never makes any leaps that the reader would find unbelievable, yet both story and romance constantly surge forward.

It wasnít always totally linear, but I like that - itís boring to have every tiny detail spelled out as if I was too dim to make even the simplest connection. Instead, I felt as though I knew enough about the characters to fill in the gaps, or that another piece of the puzzle was being laid in front of me. Best of all, whatever their differences, the considerable heat generated between them plus the instinctive trust that kept both digging for the truth made me believe that they deserved to triumph over all their difficulties.

Itís not a perfect book. Gabe insists on investigating the cheating incident long after itís clear that his friendís son was not cheated. In an all-too-common (and all-too-obvious) ploy to add a last-minute complication, Lilith succumbs to the self-sacrifice gene that afflicts too many romance heroines. We sit though a few pages of the typical Iím-not-worthy-I-must-give-him-up angst before she smartens up.

In general, however, this is a book that is dramatic and emotional in a way I associate with older historicals and, although it goes over the top in a couple of spots, for the most part this works very well. It makes me remember how engaging this style of writing can be when it doesnít tumble down the slippery slope into purple prose - itís romantic in the sense that it depicts a larger-than-life fantasy, not just because itís a love story.

So donít let the ho-hum cover put you off - whatís underneath will keep you awake nicely.

--Judi McKee

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