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Too Wicked to Love
by Barbara Dawson Smith
(St. Martins, $5.99, R) ISBN 0-312-96893-0
****
You're not going to believe this, but it looks like a publisher is actually doing some serious market research. In the back of Barbara Dawson Smith's new release, there is a questionnaire which suggests that St. Martin's is trying to figure out what makes a reader buy a particular book. Well, in the interests of research, I'll tell you why I picked up this one. It was the title and the step-back cover didn't hurt either. This is one time when the book itself lived up to the promise of its title.

Ethan Sinclair, Earl of Chasebourne, is enjoying a waker-upper with his current mistress when he is most rudely interrupted. Miss Jane Mayhew bursts into his bedroom and insists that he stop acting like a dissolute cad and take responsibility for his actions. In particular, Jane wants him to take responsibility for the two-month-old baby who was left on her doorstep that morning, with Ethan's signet ring wrapped in her blankets.

Jane is the prim and proper daughter of a scholar, but she and Ethan have a history. Ethan spent much of his time as a child at the family's country home and Jane lived in a nearby cottage. He was always teasing "Miss Maypole." She was always disapproving his actions while secretly admiring the handsome young man. Jane's mother had been Ethan's mother's best friend and Lady Chasebourne is her godmother.

Ethan's first response is to deny parentage. While he has quite a reputation as a rake and had created a scandal by divorcing his promiscuous wife, he cannot imagine that any of his women would have hesitated to approach him if they got in the family way. Jane's second response once her righteous anger has cooled is to recognize that Ethan is not the person to raise an innocent daughter. So she proposes to take charge of Baby Marianne herself.

Ethan is about to sign away any rights to the infant when his mother arrives on the scene and immediately starts gushing about her only grandchild. She insists that Ethan take the baby in, but Jane is not about to let Marianne go to an unsuitable home, so she comes along, first to Chasebourne Manor and then to London. She is worried that Ethan will search out the baby's mother and then turn her over to the woman who so callously abandoned her.

Smith has cleverly combined a number of scenarios in Too Wicked to Love. We have the obviously mismatched couple who spar continually, who seem to be polar opposites, but who actually share a history and more than might appear on the surface. We have the "butterfly emerging from her chrysalis" tale, as a well dressed and well turned out Plain Jane turns out to be a striking woman. We have the sheltered woman who begins to learn about the realities of the world and the real truth about the man scenario. And, finally, we have the "baby brings together the two people who fall for her" story. All the book needs is a cowboy!

Actually, all these threads combine to make a most entertaining Regency historical. I worried a bit at the start that Jane would be one of those headstrong heroines who acts in inappropriate and unlikely ways, but she does mellow and grow wiser as the book goes on. Her devotion to Marianne makes sense given her spinster status (she's 26) and the lack of warmth and love in her life. Her attraction to Ethan is likewise perfectly understandable.

Ethan is a typical hero in that he has been busy living down to his father's expectations and his own reputation. His determination to do the right thing in the matter of the baby, even though he is not completely sure she is his, is a clear sign that he is not the rake he has been painted. His growing attraction to Jane suggests that he can appreciate a woman of character and determination.

There are some interesting twists and turns in the story and one that really caught me by surprise. And Smith does great love scenes.

My colleagues who reviewed Smith's previous books both admired her story telling ability, but felt that she did not do a great job in developing the relationship between the hero and the heroine. I have no such complaint about this novel. We watch Ethan and Jane come to understand, appreciate and finally love each other. In short, I enjoyed Too Wicked to Love.

--Jean Mason


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