by Adele Ashworth, historical (1999)
Jove, $5.99, ISBN 0-515-12565-2
Adele Ashworth has produced a story that is delightfully charming despite its sometimes illogical twists and a heroine that oscillates from being bizarrely naive to deviously cunning. I'm sorry to resort to awful puns but I'm charmed utterly by this story.
Five years ago naive Miss Natalie Haislett declares herself to have fallen in love with dark, handsome Jonathan Drake upon meeting him for only a few hours in a masked ball. She invited him to the garden to talk, but Jonathan steals a kiss instead. The man realizes she wasn't the temptress he thought she was, but an innocent too impetuous to know that she was flirting with ruination, so he gently let her down. Cut to present time in 1847. Still naive (but learning pretty fast) Natalie knocks on Jonathan's door and demands that he takes her along with him to France. She wants to meet the infamous jewel thief Black Knight who has been terrorizing the French. She has, she tells Jonathan, fallen in love with Black Knight after reading about the thief's exploits. When she finds that man, she intends to marry him. Better live in disgrace and breathless excitement than to go fat under loveless matrimony to a man who doesn't love her.
At this point any veteran reader will know who the Black Knight is. And I also almost put down the book in irritation, for Natalie sounds like a total idiot at this point. Yet I realized all this nonsense is what she tells us and Jonathan. Indeed, she has a secret agenda of her own in meeting Black Knight.
On his part, notorious womanizer Jonathan is plagued by sudden doubts about his lifestyle. For some reason he starts to yearn for family and many little brats littering around his place. Besides, he has a secret mission in France, and what better to aid his deception than a lovely "wife"? So he agrees to take her along. An added bonus would be experimenting with this imminent attraction between them.
Soon dear Natalie is making Jonathan all twisted up with frustration. Sure, she is attracted to him, but that woman just wouldn't succumb! And women always succumb to him. Jonathan is soon gnawed by an irrational jealousy over this Black Knight.
I admit I have no patience for too naive heroines, but Natalie isn't stupid. She always sees through Jonathan's attempt at deceptions, and that woman can take care of her own. Her naivety stems for being sheltered from the outside world by her fire-and-brimstone pious mother, so I find myself sympathizing with her. This woman is way out of her league surrounded by spies, traitors, and intrigue, but I find myself admiring her for being able to hold her own. She learns fast. Natalie's an irresistible mix of innocence and womanly wiles, and watching her work her web in which Jonathan steps in willingly is wonderful. My favorite scene is the one where she lists down the reason why she wouldn't settle for anything less than love in a marriage. It redeems her of her earlier antics in my opinion. She clearly knows what she is doing. This woman is no ninny. You go, girl!
Jonathan is also a delightfully complicated character. Watching him trying to make Natalie look at him as a potential lover is like... oh, I don't know, it's really hilarious. The poor man doesn't know what hit him. That vexing woman refuses to consider him as anything but a good friend even as she kisses him back. How annoying! After a while the Rake Extraordinaire is beginning to wish his past gone and that he can convince Natalie he would never stray from marriage, forever amen. His reaction when Natalie tells him that the best husbands are those who are virgins on the wedding night is priceless.
Watching these two banter is fun fun fun. Ms Ashworth's dialog are always a delight to read, especially when she pokes a little fun at the conventions of the Regency historical romance genre, such as the emphasis on virginity in women but not in men.
Sure, the first few chapters are quite muddled, and Natalie's initial behavior can be off-putting. But bear with all this for a while and the reader might be rewarded with a delightful charmer of a story. I know I was.
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