His Chosen Bride
by Alexandra Bassett
(Zebra, $6.50, PG) ISBN 0-8217-7786-6
***
Debut author Alexandra Bassett (actually the sister writing team of Elizabeth and Julia Bass) delivers a solid first effort with His Chosen Bride. Abigail Wingate leads a double life of sorts. To the world, she’s Miss Abigail, a somewhat frail spinster who at twenty-four is firmly on the shelf. But Abigail has another persona: she’s also Georgianna Harcourt, a celebrated author of Gothic novels. Living at Peacock Hall with her snobbish, widowed older sister Violet and her flirtatious younger sister Sophy is pleasant, if not exciting. And Abigail has no illusions about her looks.

Then one day her father, Sir Harlan, announces they’ll be entertaining Major Nathan Cantrell for dinner. Nathan is a neighbor recently returned from the war. The girls should dress themselves up and attempt to charm him, he orders, with a pointed look at Abigail’s plain clothing. Abigail is disgusted by this suggestion and takes herself off for a long walk and a swim in a remote pond.

Nathan Cantrell has returned home to find his estate, the Willows, in a shambles. His late father mortgaged the place to the hilt, and the owner of those mortgages is none other than Sir Harlan Wingate. Now Nathan has been summoned to Sir Harlan’s home, likely to discuss the repayment of the mortgages. Nathan knows he has no hope of being able to pay them off. Frustrated, he stops by a pond on the way to the Peacock Hall and impulsively takes a swim. Nothing could astonish Nathan more than finding a lively, green-eyed sprite already in the water.

Nathan is even more astonished, not to mention insulted, when he arrives at Peacock Hall. Sir Harlan offers to tear up the mortgages on the Willows if Nathan will marry one of the Wingate girls and give Sir Harlan a grandchild. He’ll even throw in a twenty thousand pound dowry. Nathan can take his pick of the girls; he can look them over at dinner.

Nathan grits his teeth and agrees to at least attend the dinner, then gets the shock of his life when one of the daughters turns out to be his water sprite from the pond. Not only that, but it’s the supposedly frail, sickly middle daughter, Abigail. Nathan smells a rat immediately. What’s going on here? And where is that enchanting young lady? There’s only one way to find out. He’ll court one of the daughters, but it won’t be the supercilious Violet or the hoydenish Sophy. It will be Abigail.

The story is enjoyable, even if the “heroine as secret author” is rather overused lately. Each chapter opens with a passage from one of Abigail’s books, and I might have been more charmed by this if I hadn’t seen the very plot device used in another book just last week. Abigail isn’t much interested in marriage and her reactions to Nathan’s courtship are fairly blunt. She’s an enjoyable character in this respect. Nathan is good-humored and determined, once he sets his sights on Abigail, and he isn’t above using her sisters to force her hand. Since Abigail has a streak of “dog in the manger” in her, it’s a well-deserved comeuppance.

There are a few first-time missteps. Violet, the spoiled beauty, has a way of acting that is cartoonish in some places. She’s one of those tiresome characters who stamp their feet, pout, cut her eyes at her sisters, etc. This is clunky writing. Face it: how often do you meet grown women who stamp their feet when they aren’t getting their way? Me, either. It just looks silly in a book. And Abigail’s waffling becomes tedious after a while. If either of the sisters had been more sympathetic, I wouldn’t have been surprised to see Nathan lose interest in Abigail and select one of the others.

His Chosen Bride is acceptable, but ultimately unmemorable. It will provide a few hours of pleasant diversion if you’re in the mood.

--Cathy Sova


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