Once Upon A Christmas

Diane Farr
2000, Regency Romance
Signet, $4.99, 215 pages, Amazon ASIN 0451201620

Grade: B+
Sensuality: Kisses

Now I get it. Last year, everyone was raving about Diane Farr's Fair Game, which won our reader's award for best Regency Romance. When I read it, the appeal completely eluded me. But I decided to give her another chance, and I'm so glad I did, because my experience with Once Upon a Christmas was so much better. This is a book I can heartily recommend.

Celia Delacourt loses her family in a sudden tragedy, and as the daughter of a poor vicar she has nowhere to turn. Out of the blue a distant relative shows up and invites her to come stay at her home. It seems Celia is the great-granddaughter of the Duke of Delacourt, and her new benefactress is none other than the current duchess. The duchess is not without her ulterior motives however; she is quite a authoritative woman, and she is determined that her son (who is the heir to the dukedom) will marry a woman she can control and dominate. She figures that Celia is something of a tabula rasa, and that she will gratefully accept any instruction the duchess provides.

Jack Delacourt knows something is up when he is invited to his own home for Christmas. He always goes home anyway, so he figures a special invitation from his mother means that she has a prospective bride waiting. He is determined to undermine her efforts, so he decides to show up as planned - and behave in such an obnoxious manner that even the most determined fortune hunter will not want to wed him. When Celia first meets him, he is wearing an eye-jarring ensemble and laughing like a hyena. One of Jack's sisters intimates that he is mad, and because his behavior seems so odd, Celia believes it. But Jack and Celia are soon thrown together, and Jack finds himself liking her, even though he has no desire to please his mother. Celia likes Jack too, but she remains convinced that he is mad, even though he abandons his crazy behavior early on. Meanwhile, the duchess is not so sure she wants the match to come off; Celia is not at all the bidable type the duchess was hoping for.

It is a particular challenge for Regencies and series romances to present fully-developed characters and a convincing plot within a short book format. Once Upon a Christmas is a book that succeeds admirably in this endeavor. Every character is convincing and interesting, from Jack and Celia to the duchess, to Jack's cat. Jack and Celia are the type of hero and heroine you just have to like. Celia has tragically lost her family, but she remains down to earth and concerned about others. She refuses to be cowed by the formidable duchess, even though her position in life is precarious. Jack is great also. He provides much of the humor in the book; the scenes in which he deliberately acts like an arrogant buffoon are priceless. Although the members of his family are difficult to get along with to say the least, he manages to be compassionate without becoming a doormat. The other characters all live up to their promise, and there is a delightful secondary romance involving one of Jack's sisters. This secondary romance is so enjoyable I couldn't help wishing that the couple had their own book.

When I first opened the book, I wondered how Farr would be able to get the hero and heroine together and still manage to put the controlling duchess in her place. After all, the duchess wants these two to get together. Farr handles this part of the plot deftly, in a way that had me smiling at the end. My only quibble was that Celia really spent too long thinking that Jack was mad. This was funny, but it did get old after a while. Still, the engaging plot and pleasing characters made Once Upon a Christmas a fun read. This is one of the best Regencies I've read this year.

-- Blythe Barnhill

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