Found: One Wife

Her Secret Lover

The Wrong Bride

Birthright by Judith Arnold
(Harl. Super. #924, $4.50, PG-13) ISBN 0-373-70924-2
I wanted to give Birthright four hearts; the plot is engaging, the mystery angle is intriguing, and the romance is right on target. Unfortunately, the hero and heroine themselves leave a lot to be desired as characters.

Aaron Mazerik, resident bad-boy and former juvenile delinquent, has changed a lot since he left his hometown of Riverbend, Indiana, fifteen years ago. He went to college, earned a masters degree, and now counsels troubled teens. Aaron never planned to return to Riverbend, but found himself doing just that after his mother's stroke. Aaron realizes that a lot of things have changed in the time he's been away, but one fundamental thing hasn't: he's still as crazy about Lily Bennett as he ever was.

Aaron has wanted Lily since the first time he laid eyes on her, yet he never did anything about it because of the terrible secret he carries, a secret that will keep them apart forever...

Lily Bennett Holden, the most popular girl in high school fifteen years ago, wishes everyone would realize that she isn't the perfect princess leading the perfect life that people seem to believe. Her husband (who is now dead) was an alcoholic that treated her badly and she herself has made a lot of poor decisions in the past several years...not at all the pristine golden girl of Riverbend anymore. The only person that seems to understand the woman Lily has evolved into is Aaron Mazerik, the reformed bad-boy she's had a yearning for since high school. Now if only Aaron would look at her as more than just a friend...

This story would have gone beyond acceptable and become a "must read" if only the novel's protagonists had been scripted better. Lily, for instance, is supposed to be a stronger, more adventurous woman than she was before leaving Riverbend to marry, yet she comes off as weak-willed and forever teary-eyed. She is too delicate for life, too fragile to relate to, and her idea of adventurous is absurdly tame. To Lily, proof that she is now a risk-taker instead of a complacent good-girl is evidenced by the fact that when she paints, she no longer paints still-lifes of jugs and fruit, but of cornfields rippling in the wind.

The analogy the author was going for would have proven a tad more apt had Lily done anything else in the book to prove that a stronger side of her exists: running with scissors, wearing cotton instead of cashmere...anything! But instead, her cornfields are the only proof we are given. All of Lily's other actions highlight the fact that she's a weak woman desperately in need of someone to care for her.

Aaron isn't much better. He might not be getting arresting for vagrancy and making a general nuisance of himself anymore, but he's hardly what one would call a grown-up. Aaron comes across as a man in dire need of a spanking from his mommy...hardly the sort of hero that makes a romance reader's heart go flippity-flop.

The worst aspect of Birthright is its ending.. Without giving away too much, Aaron goes and gets rip roaring drunk in reaction to a crisis, knowing it is the one thing that will hurt Lily the most, namely because of her dead husband's alcoholism. Lily walks away from Aaron at first (a good thing), but later goes back and actually apologizes to him for being (and I quote) "too selfish to realize what kind of pain [he was] in."

I don't think so.

Apologizing to a man for walking away from him when he not only (A) got drunk, but (B) did it to hurt the woman he supposedly cares for, isn't the type of action Harlequin should be espousing to its female audience. Lily's first reaction was the appropriate one. A hero that does something mean and spiteful like that shouldn't be forgiven for weeks...and that's after he's cried, begged, pleaded, sent flowers, and is in counseling, soon to graduate at the top of his group therapy class.

Nevertheless, setting personal feelings aside, the plot is too well penned to give Birthright anything less than three hearts. The storyline is attention-getting and the main angst of the novel (Aaron's secret) is a real page-turner. In the end, Birthright is a good read that should have been a great one.

--Tina Engler

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