Once A Scoundrel
by Candice Hern, historical (2003)
Avon, $5.99, ISBN 0-06-050563-X

Something funny happened around my cheeks when I was at page 3. By page 20, I realize, with a shock, that the funny feeling is me grinning like a fool. This grin never fades all through the 374 pages of this book, except maybe in the last few pages, because I'm also wiping away at the tears rolling my cheeks. It's hard to keep smiling when one is also shedding tears of joy ("What a wonderful book!") and bittersweet wistfulness ("It's over. I'll have to read another book. Drat."). How does this happen? Just what did Candice Hern do anyway? Whatever it is, thank you. I have a really wonderful time reading this book, and it's an easy decision to add this gem to my keeper shelf.

Set in 1801, this story tells of Anthony Morehouse and Edwina Parrish, both of whom are childhood friends and enemies. (Boys and girls that age - is there a difference between love and hate?) Edwina bested Tony in every childhood challenges and dares, culminating in Edwina winning a Minerva bust (the statue thingie, not the 36DDs) from Tony. Tony got trashed bad by his father for losing that bust. It's no biggie. Tony and his father never get along anyway. Today, these two people can't be any more different. Tony is a roguish carefree man that loves freely, gambles freely, and wins his way in and out of hearts. Edwina is a loyal acolyte to the principles espoused by Wollstonecraft and her legion of Modern Women, and she edits The Ladies' Fashionable Cabinet with her fellow republican liberal friends, males and females. (In England, republican and liberal aren't mutually exclusive.) The Ladies' Fashionable Cabinet looks like a silly women's magazine, but its articles are subversive tracts for early 19th century feminism and other liberal reforms. So what happens when Tony wins the ownership of the magazine from the actual owner of the magazine (not Edwina - she only edits and runs the magazine)?

Tony and Edwina waste no time rekindling their childhood repartee - he challenges her that if she can double the subscription of the Cabinet in three months, he will transfer the ownership of the magazine to her. To Edwina, this is a dream come true. If she can't meet the challenge, he will retain ownership of the magazine and she must return the Minerva bust to him. What has Edwina to lose, right? She agrees to the challenge. Little does she know that Tony has plans for seduction. How lucky for him that Edwina has a few surprises up her own sleeves as well.

Tony is an adorable hero. A really charming rascal, he has this way to committing the naughtiest mayhem with an adorably mischievous twinkle in his eye, be it charming Edwina's stockings from her or challenging Edwina with playful dares and one-liners until she - and me - doesn't know whether to scream in exasperation or to jump his bones. He has a reputation for being a rake, but that's just an exaggeration. He's a serial monogamist. And he falls so hard for Edwina without knowing it, he fair takes my breath away too many times in this book.

And as for Edwina, she's a refreshing change from those fake bluestockings - she's truly a follower of Wollstonecraft's ideals and beliefs in that she really isn't holding out for a husband and paying lip service to Mary Wollstonecraft until she finds one. She's truly a radical for a romance heroine in that she has done many crazy things in name of activism. She's also no lily white virgin - she's fallen in love before to a fellow activist, has an affair with him just like a Modern Woman would in those times, and still cherishes the memories eight years after this activist lost his head at the French guillotine. She doesn't want to risk her emotions again because the last time she fell hard, she doesn't just get her heart broken. She feels that it's best to devote herself to her beliefs. But she still has sexual desires, and Tony is making her remember what it felt like to fall in love, flirt outrageously, and live for the moment.

Edwina is definitely the stronger character of the two - she has some large baggage, Tony has very little. But both have tiny little secrets that soon add up to cause a major conflict between them late in the book. This conflict is a much-needed plot development, because sometimes it feels as if the author is losing a little focus on the romance and concentrating a little too much on Edwina's drive for reforms. Under any other circumstances, this conflict may be annoying, but in this book, this conflict only forces both characters to undergo beautifully poignant epiphanies. She learns that sometimes it takes more than fiery rhetoric to make a change - action speaks louder than editorials. Also, she learns to compromise. Tony realizes just how foolish he was to treat his feelings for Edwina like a silly game of flirtation and seduction. In a way, both of them grow up a lot in the last few chapters, culminating in both realizing that they make each other complete. It is a little ironic that Tony, the more easy-going of the two, makes a passionate speech (that one that makes me cry) that suggests that he may be more emotionally needy of the two. I like that.

From their playful if silly challenging of each other to some scenes that are surprisingly sexy despite being far from graphic, Edwina and Tony are so perfect, so right together, in a way that is so evident the moment they meet in Edwina's office that I can't help but to root them on. They are also hilarious together, especially the scene when Tony teaches Edwina how to write fashion reports on the ladies of the Ton (he knows more about fabric types than she!). I love these two, and I love reading their story.

I do have some complains, and that is the fact that Once A Scoundrel's pace falters in the middle of the book. The romance takes a backseat to Edwina's running the magazine with the aid of a flock of Ex-Tarts With Hearts Of Gold. I get a little impatient with Tony's continuous daring Edwina and her stubbornness in not wanting to admit her attraction to him. And damn it, where is the love scene? (Sorry, traditional Regency readers, but I'm like that.) Then, finally, after teasing me with that sexy stocking removal scene and some kissing scenes that almost singe my fingertips and then - poof! - nothing but talk, then they finally get naked, and it's about time too. If I'm a disinterested observer, I'd rate the love scene PG-13. Since Edwina and Tony radiate sexual chemistry like a nuclear reactor on major meltdown, however, the whole PG-13 sex thing, liberally sprinkled by sexual tension and pheromone-driven attraction, is hot enough to set a fire extinguisher on fire.

A few points are deducted for the too-long wait to consummation and the story's slight loss of focus around the midpoint. Also, the conflict towards the end seem to suggest that the heroine should retract her barbs when a member of the hero's family is involved, and this suggestion doesn't sit too well with me. Still, Once A Scoundrel still manages to knock me down and win me over. The hero is so irresistibly buoyant and rakish yet sober at times, the heroine is just wonderful as a Modern Woman that is intelligent if stubborn (I will bet that she won't forget her principles after marriage, unlike a few "bluestockings" in romance novels that I come across), and these two's love story works so beautifully for me. Like Tony said, she keeps him serious and grounded while he keeps her from losing track of the lighter side of life. It makes sense. They make sense.

Once A Scoundrel is a winner with me in every way that counts. It is one of those books that I cannot contemplate granting anything less than a well-deserved keeper status. Everything seems to work - the chemistry, the character development, the romance, the heroine, and the hero. Once again, whatever it is that Ms Hern did, I need to read a book like this, so once again - thank you.

Rating: 96

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