The Devil Earl
by Deborah Simmons, historical (1996)
Harlequin Historical, $4.99, ISBN 0-373-28917-0

To call The Devil Earl a magnificent piece of masterpiece is definitely an understatement. Honey, this book flies. It is so emotionally charged and painfully romantic that I hang on to every word, every phrase, until I'm not sure whether I'm laughing or crying because it's so good. It's a beautiful story of redemption and sin, strange bedfellows indeed, but Ms Simmons does it very well.

And it also drives home what I always believe. The one true match of a jaded, dark rake isn't a contrived and frigid Ms Virtue the Bluestocking Social Reformer. No, it's the dreamy, daring, reckless bluestocking that is his soul-mate in living the life of the wild and impulsive carpe diem that will ultimately hold him in thrall.

Prudence Lancester writes Gothic melodramas. She and her sister Phoebe live in a quiet corner of Cornwall, overlooking the grim and supposedly haunted Wolfinger Abbey. Prudence's greatest regret is not living out one of her scary stories. She wants excitement and passion, but from the way things are going, it seems her closest to nirvana is via living vicariously through her stories.

Until into their life breezes in James Penhurst, brother of Sebastian, Earl of Ravenscar, who courts Phoebe. Phoebe and Prudence witness the confrontation between James and Sebastian one stormy evening, and when James disappears the next day, rumors fly that Sebastian has murdered his own brother in a fit of rage. The Devil Earl has struck again.

Hogwash, says Prudence. Sebastian won't be so stupid as to kill a brother in broad daylight. Besides, there's no motive. But Sebastian catches her imagination the way no man could - he's gaunt, he has long hair billowing in the stormy thundery sky, and he is tall, huge, and dark. Her Gothic hero.

Prudence, fired by passions and inspirations, writes Bastian of Bloodmoor that soon becomes a runaway success. When Sebastian and Prudence meet in London, she's ecstatic. Too bad he isn't too pleased about being not-too-subtly made the main star and villain of her book. But fear not, they soon band together to solve the Mystery Of The Missing Brother and eventually fall into love and laughter.

And oh my, I can't help but to love both Sebastian and Prudence. They are so right for each other. In a less capable author's hand, Prudence could have been a starry-eyed and pathetically innocent ninny, but Prudence demonstrates wiles and cunning that makes her a perfect match for Sebastian's seductive aggressiveness. And she actually finds Sebastian's infamous reputation arousing and fascinating.

Poor Sebastian doesn't know what hit him. When he sulks and growls, the damned woman actually comes close to tearing his clothes off instead of running away shrieking. He as no idea what to do her, except to, well, let her tear his clothes off and enjoy every minute of it. I especially love the way the man comes to love Prudence. When he first sees her, he thought her prim, plain, and dull. But after reading her books, he realizes that here is a woman where seething passions exist under that dreamy surface. He falls for the inside Prudence, he loves who she is, not what she looks like, and for that I am very pleased.

And I can't help it - I have a great time laughing at how Sebastian quickly changes his tune from wanting to choke the upstart author to justifying to himself how wonderful a writer Prudence is upon realizing that she is the author. The man's hooked, line and sinker. He's doomed.

And Prudence doesn't let anything get in the way of getting her man. No way. Prudence's behavior may shock purists using to the get me first attitude of many Regency heroines, but the author sums up Prudence's behavior nicely in one paragraph where Prudence declares that she would rather live life if only for a moment than to spend her life wondering at if-only's.

If there is one flaw in this wonderful parody of a Gothic romance, it's the subplot involving James, which I find is a bit of a stretch to believe. But no matter. The Devil Earl is funny, heartbreaking, and breathlessly romantic all at the same time. The way Sebastian realizes that Prudence completes him (that she is too good for him, but damn it, he can't stay away!) makes me smile wistfully and sniffle a few tears at the same time. And yes, I believe in their love story, and I root for their happy endings.

Absolutely magnificent, The Devil Earl demands reread after reread. I should know - I read it three times in one setting. Call me nutcase, but I think this book deserves a special place on my keeper shelf.

Rating: 98

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