Mid-19th-century Dorset again, with the author of The Darkness of Corn (1992), etc., featuring once more an attractive heroine chafing against gender-imposed idleness. Added to the mix are a particularly nasty prodigal son, returning home for mischief, and a likeable family group, besieged but triumphant. Orphaned Theodosia (``Theo'') Farnaby, raised by lively Aunt Louisa, a spinster ``of an independent habit of mind,'' is in the process of grappling with her fond feelings for Cousin Ralph, manager of Uncle Carnow's rope and net mill. (Louisa and Theo have also inherited mills.) Constrained to inactivity, Theo is jealous of Ralph's active life and must search her emotions before permitting the courtship to go further. Returning from 10 years abroad, during which he spent the money he'd purloined from the mill and his father, is Cousin Charles, Ralph's rotter of an elder brother. Ralph, Louisa, and little Ettie (whose mother's death and father's imprisonment had much to do with Charles) glower, but old Carnow is besotted with Charles and orders the fatted calf. Theo is intrigued, puzzled, stirred, and narrowly escapes ``ruination.'' As Charles's varied awfulness comes to light, the good chaps rally and commiserate: ``The sun shone and the ribbons of their wide hats curled about their necks as they talked of suicide, adultery and theft.'' Later they will know something of murder. It's all hearts in ``the living silence of summer'' at the close, but first Charles is satisfyingly trumped. A graceful, unhurried romance and domestic drama.