Once a Scoundrel, by Candice Hern

>> Friday, February 10, 2006

What usually happens when I read a rave about a book in one of the message boards I frequent, is that I think "Ohhh, that sounds good! Too bad I still need to order it / it's on its way here / it's at my friend's house in the US and hasn't yet shipped". That wasn't the case with Once a Scoundrel (excerpt), by Candice Hern. I had my particular book right in my TBR, and I had actually just finished the book I was reading, so I simply left my computer, grabbed the book and started reading. Pretty much a new experience for me! ;-)

Too bad about the cover, though. It's not bad for a clinch, but I've been reading such nice, tasteful covers lately, that having to read this one on the bus was a bit of a shock!

It was bad enough when Anthony Morehouse thought he had won a piece of furniture in a card game, but when he learned that The Ladies' Fashionable Cabinet was actually a women's magazine, he couldn't wait to get rid of it. Then he sees beautiful Edwina Parrish behind the editor's desk. Tony has never forgotten the spirited girl who had bested him at every childhood contest, ultimately winning a priceless family heirloom he had no business wagering. Here was a golden opportunity for him to win it back. Yet Edwina, now a voluptuous enchantress, tempts him in a way no woman ever had before ...

Edwina was stunned to learn that Tony is the new owner of her beloved magazine. Being the Cabinet's editor has been a labor of love, and she's not about to let Tony take it away from her. If the scoundrel wants to make a wager, then he'll find that she has a few tricks of her own up her sleeve. But the mischievous youth she once knew has grown into a brazen charmer, and Edwina may be making the biggest gamble of all ... with her heart.
I very much enjoyed this one. In fact, it was a B+ through most of the book, but the very final conflict wasn't too good, and had me lowering my grade to a B.

Once a Scoundrel is the second in Hern's series that centers on the staff of The Ladies' Fashionable Cabinet a magazine which looks like a normal ladies' mag but which is actually a hotbed of revolutionary activity ;-) The first book, Once a Dreamer (which I loved) was the story of Simon Westover, who writes the advice column for the magazine. This second entry in the series tells the story of Edwina Parrish, the magazine's editor.

The only reason Edwina and her staff have been able to insert their subtle messages into Cabinet is because the owner, her uncle Victor, never meddles. He runs too many "important" publications to worry about a silly ladies' magazine, so he's never even read it. This allows Edwina to do as she wants with the content -and also allows her to skim some of the profits to use for more direct, revolutionary action, like political pamphlets or funding certain choice charities.

When Victor loses the Cabinet in a game of cards to inveterate gambler Anthony Morehouse, Edwina gets quite worried. She doesn't know what kind of owner he'll turn out to be. Will he allow her free hand with the content? Will he carefully examine the account books and realize what she's been doing with the profits?

Anthony wants nothing to do with the Cabinet. He's none too happy about having won it; he thought he was getting a piece of furniture. None too happy, at least, until he meets the beautiful editor, who is none other than the girl who drove him crazy all those years ago by beating him in every single thing. Intrigued, Anthony proposes a bet: Edwina has four months to double the magazine's subscriptions, with no interference from him. If she wins, she'll own the magazine outright, if not, she will return a statue she won from him when they were kids.

The best thing about this story were the characters. Edwina is just wonderful. She's a woman who doesn't much care for the conventions, but who deeply cares about the world around her and wants to improve it. And to do this, she's willing to take action, whether it is to go to France in support of the Revolution or to publish a women's magazine which slowly tries to change its readers' thinking. For all her modern ideas, though, she didn't feel like a 21st century heroine in petticoats, but like a woman of her time. A radical thinker, yes, but they did exist back then. I also loved the way Hern presented Edwina's sexual past. It was terribly refreshing that she was experienced and she wasn't tortured about it (and that the guy hadn't been a horrible person and a bad lover, to boot).

Anthony was lovely, too. I loved the way he changed from a basically nice guy, but one doesn't do much but gambling, to a man capable of loving someone like Edwina, and a man who gets involved in charities, not to impress Edwina, but for himelf.

Their relationship was great fun. At first I thought I might find their continuous betting irritating, but it worked, because after a while, it became obvious that these bets were neither life or death nor a way for one of them to get an advantage over the other: they were a form of foreplay, and this made for a very sexy read. Even the initial, very serious bet for the magazine, soon loses its potential to cause damage to their relationship, as Anthony soon admits that he actually wants Edwina to win it.

The only thing that bothered me about Once a Scoundrel was the final conflict, which I thought was out of character. Anthony really, really overreacts there, and the things he says are much too hurtful for the offense Edwina had caused him. My feeling there was kind of "Who is this man and what has he done to my Anthony?".

Plus, there's the issue of his realizing so quickly about the profits thing (which I definitely do not condone). I have some doubts about whether it's so easy as to flip through the accounts, unless Edwina was as stupid as to write entries such as "Amount siphoned off for revolutionary publications: 10 pounds", which she doesn't seem to be.

Oh, well. This did make the book end in a false note, never a good thing, but up until that point, this had been such a truly outstanding book, that I'd still enthusiastically recommend it.

I also have Once a Gentleman, which is the last book in the series, in my TBR. The storyline, with its shy heroine who's been in love with the indifferent hero for years, doesn't appeal to me all that much, but I've liked the previous books so much that I'll give it a try.


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