The Charm School

The Drifter

The Horsemaster's Daughter

The Hostage

Husband for Hire

Irish Magic

The Lightkeeper

Miranda

 
The Mistress by Susan Wiggs
(Mira, $6.50, PG-13) ISBN 1-55166-610-3
*****
Susan Wiggs has never yet disappointed me. I have followed her fromTudor England to Renaissance Venice to Regency England to the Pacific Northwest to the high seas to 19th century Virginia. In every case, she has provided both a great romance and a real feel for place and time. Her most recent destination is Chicago during the Great Fire of 1872. The Mistress is the second of her planned series centering on romances that flourish as a city burns.

The heroine of The Mistress is Kathleen O’Leary, daughter of the infamous Mrs. O’Leary who has long been blamed for starting the blaze. Kate has been in service as personal maid to Miss Deborah Sinclair since she was twelve. Bright and beautiful, Kate has managed to learn the manners and ways of the upper crust. So persuasive are her manners that two of Deborah’s friends make a bet. Phoebe believes that Kate’s birth will be obvious, whatever her behavior. Lucy believes that she can easily pass as a member of high society. Thus it is that one Sunday evening Kate finds herself at a society affair, dressed in emerald silk, with diamonds and emeralds at her ears and throat.

One of the other attendees is the handsome Dylan Kennedy, of the Connecticut Kennedys, who is “just back from the continent.” The lovely and supposedly rich young woman soon attracts Dylan’s attention. Indeed, as the reader soon discovers, rich young women always attract Dylan because they are potential marks for his scams. If Kathleen is not what she seems, neither is Dylan. There is an instant spark between the two, but they are soon parted when news of a serious fire spreads through the gathering.

Fate brings the two together again in the midst of the blaze. After numerous close calls, Kate and Dylan find themselves in City Hall, with the mayor, a judge, a priest and a dying man. As the fire moves inexorably closer and death stares them in the face, it seems absolutely sensible for the two to marry and so they do. Then, good fortune shines and those trapped manage to escape. Kate and Dylan consummate their unplanned marriage in a deserted Pullman car.

Day comes and the truth will out. Kate thinks she has married a wealthy man and discovers that she has wed a con artist. Dylan thinks he has married a rich heiress and finds that he has wed a lady’s maid. While Kate is willing to accept reality - she has indeed fallen in love with her surprising husband - Dylan has no intention of settling down.

But despite Dylan’s determination to take the next train out of town - the presence of a former partner bent on revenge makes such a course of action necessary - he finds himself involved in a complex plot to recover money stolen from the Catholic relief fund. Kate proves a surprisingly effective co-conspirator in this undertaking.

What makes The Mistress so wonderful is that it has everything a fan of historical romance could want. The setting is marvelously drawn; one can almost smell the burning city and experience the panic as Chicago’s citizens seek to escape the holocaust. The plots - both the romance and the scam - are unique. And the characters are all fascinating.

Kate is determined to rise above her lowly origins and has taken advantage of every opportunity to gain the knowledge and skills that will make this possible. She is intelligent and lovely, but she is also loyal and caring. Dylan, for all his charm and looks, may seem like a most unheroic hero. But Wiggs carefully shows us why he is the man he has become and she also suggests that he can be redeemed. And don’t we all love to watch a scoundrel’s redemption? Wiggs also manages to make her large cast of secondary characters live on her pages.

Susan Wiggs just keeps getting better and better. Indeed, she is one of the best writers of historical romances. The Mistress can only add to her reputation. I will want to revisit Kate and Dylan. This one will stay on my crowded book shelves.

--Jean Mason


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