Widow In Scarlet
by Nicole Byrd, historical (2003)
Berkley, $5.99, ISBN 0-42519-209-1


Nicole Byrd's latest Regency historical Widow In Scarlet is a familiar nitwit-in-distress story. From the secret service rake hero to the simpleton heroine besieged by problems, this book is like comfort food. Unfortunately, the heroine's utter brown cow personality and hopeless passivity make this book a tough one, because dang if I find it very hard not to bored to stupefied senselessness by Lucy Contrain's constant tears, prattles, and whinings.

Lucy, a widow, married a not-so-nice man to get her Mommy away from being an unpaid servant for rich but nasty relatives. Now the husband is dead, leaving Lucy with a mountain of IOUs. Despite selling almost everything she has in the house, she needs to come out with a thousand pounds or she will lose the house. And she can't lose the house, naturally. Starving because she ate on gruel, she still keeps a maid named Violet because we all know that those poor wee hapless maids will just die if they are let go. Then one day, while screaming and wailing when the bad guys come to repossess everything, she falls to the ground, eek eek eek, until our hero Nicholas Ramsey steps in and pays those men off. He then asks her for a favor: "I need to go through your husband's belongings."

No, no, the dead husband is not gay or something - Nicholas, rake and spy, is looking for the Scarlet Widow, a gem that Prinny bought and then lost, how embarrassing. He suspects that the dead husband has the gem hidden among his belongings. Lucy, of course, sends him away. Then, a nice society matron sends her an invitation. Lucy thinks of the yummy food, but oh, she has no nice dress to wear. She must turn down the invitation! Then the matron sends her a dress. She attends the party. She sees Nicholas, who then makes a move on her because he makes his moves on widows. He's a professional widow stud machine. The prologue sees him trying to spy while his widow mistress tries to drag him back to bed. He complains that she is distracting him. Why is he then spying from his mistress' window?

Never mind. Logic is never this book's strongest point. Nicholas tells Lucy that there is a monetary reward if she helps him recover the gem. She promptly agrees and stops looking for Plan B to save herself from poverty. (Plot A is thwarted when it turns out that the horrid relative is not thinking of paying her should Lucy becomes her housekeeper.) What happens when they fail to recover the gem? But it doesn't matter, because the whole book sees everybody coddling Lucy like some fragile porcelain doll. The hero and the matron keep sending her gifts and while she says that she can't accept them or she will repay them, she has it very easy for one who doesn't do anything at all in this story. Lucy cannot keep up with the hero, all she can do is to stammer or to exclaim in exasperation when he flusters her with desire and more. When she's not acting like a nitwit, she crying. Oh, and while her husband isn't a nice guy, she insists on helping Nicholas to also clear her husband's name. It is wonderful to see where Lucy the "the image of virtue must be preserved at any cost" nitwit's priorities lie.

Nicholas isn't a very interesting character in that he's pretty much a stock hero with all the usual laundry list of Regency era rake/gentleman/agent qualities. Lucy is the biggest bore though because whenever she's in the scene, she sucks all life out of the story with her constant state of tearful gratitude, hopeless despair, or flustered arousal. She's barely a realistic character as much as a walking passive windbag of annoying tics and neuroses. If she actually gets a brain and takes a more active role in pulling herself out of trouble instead of depending on everyone else around her to take care of her, I may like her a little more. As it is, Lucy is like the poison ivy that clings and clings.

I recognize that Widow In Scarlet is an agreeable and formulaic historical filled with tried-and-tested overused crowd-pleasing elements in plots and characters. Unfortunately, the heroine Lucy is such a tedious, dull, and passive character and Nicholas offers little to elevate the tedium. The end result is that I find that Widow In Scarlet is a chore to read from start to finish.

Rating: 55


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