Hidden Honor

Into the Fire

Lady Fortune

Prince of Magic

The Right Man

Shadow Lover

Shadows at Sunset

Still Lake

The Widow

Wild Thing

The Devil’s Waltz
by Anne Stuart
(Mira, $6.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-7783-2273-4
Any book from Anne Stuart is a cause for celebration, and The Devil’s Waltz is no exception. She is one of a small handful of outstanding authors who is able to write equally compelling stories in both contemporary and historical settings.

The Honorable Annelise Kempton is “penniless, almost thirty years old, unmarried, not a beauty and far too bright for a woman.” This combination of qualities has not endeared her to the unmarried gentlemen of the ton, and her improvident father left her nothing but bloodlines too exalted to permit her to actually work for a living. As a result, Annelise must keep a roof over her head and bread on the table as a perennial ‘guest.’

She was most recently a guest of the Meredith family in Yorkshire, where she provided company to an elderly lady until the lady passed away. Now, Annelise will accept the hospitality of Mr. Josiah Chipple, who has made a fortune in shipping and wishes his daughter, Hetty, to marry extremely well. Annelise is to see that the beautiful but spoiled Hetty navigates the treacherous shoals of a London Season without incident and marries a suitable aristrocrat – one noble enough to give her father entrée into society, but poor enough to overlook the smell of the shop.

Unfortunately, Hetty has decided she wants Christian Montcalm, a handsome, charming viscount who also happens to be “a shallow, degenerate wastrel, a gambler, a seducer, a charlatan” and a man in very great need of a fortune. The fastest way to Hetty’s fortune is to seduce her, and Hetty, who is as vain as she is silly, is only too happy to believe Christian’s blandishments.

To Christian’s combined irritation and amusement, Annelise – whom he quickly dubs “the dragon” – thwarts his salacious ambitions at every turn. While Christian doesn’t appreciate her interference, he does appreciate the challenge presented by the spinster with the caustic wit and generous bosom. Soon, he’s amusing himself with the prospect of getting to know both women much, much better.

While Christian is clearly a very bad boy, Ms. Stuart has done an excellent job of helping us like him. This happens partly because he is so charmingly self-aware of his foibles, partly because he’s smart enough to appreciate our unconventional heroine, and partly because his motivation – to marry a wealthy wife in order to restore his estate – is familiar to readers of historical romances. If there’s an honest reason to cold-bloodedly marry for money, that’s the one.

It’s also easy to sympathize with Annalise’s dilemma. She takes her responsibility to Hetty seriously, even if Hetty does not, and she must protect the girl from an eminently unsuitable man. Annelise is smart, honorable and she thinks for herself – we’re not just told she’s smart, we can see it for ourselves every time she opens her mouth or takes action. But she’s such a complex and nicely-developed character, this did not feel incompatible with her susceptibility to Christian. Anne Stuart is very good at making her bad boys fascinating – let those among us who think we could have been stronger cast the first stone. And men are not exactly begging for this Annelise’s attention, so it’s easy to see how she could be a little dazzled by some admiration.

The story zooms along at an engaging pace, with the author constantly upping the stakes in her trademark fashion. There’s always some new challenge or revelation in store to test the characters and entertain the reader, and the build is irresistible.

If this is perhaps not the most original book this author has written, who cares? It’s as entertaining, romantic, and spirited as its hero and heroine, and a delightful read.

-- Judi McKee

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