An Unexpeced Pleasure

Beyond Compare

Hard-Hearted Texan

The Hidden Heart


An Independent Woman

Promise Me Tomorrow

Secrets of the Heart

A Stolen Heart

Swept Away


The Marriage Wager
by Candace Camp
(HQN, $6.99, R) ISBN 0373-77243-2
Candace Camp knows how to tell a story and this one is delightful. The Marriage Wager is the first of a series, and I have made a resolution to check out the next installment for sure.

Lady Francesca Haughston enjoys her widowed status, even though she is short on funds and has been forced to find ways to stretch her money. Having a maid who can also perform miracles with thread and cloth has been a major help to her. A friend and neighbor of the Duke of Rochford, Francesca finds herself at balls, but at times just going through the motions. When a little rumor starts that she is a good person to consult when looking to marry off one’s daughter, Rochford teasingly offers her a shiny expensive bauble if she puts her “skills” to the test. He chooses someone he thinks will be especially challenging to transform and find a husband. That lady is Constance Woodley.

Constance is the daughter of a baron, yet is only at the ball as a chaperone to her two young cousins. Constance is 29 and considered on the shelf. She spent her youth nursing her father and never got an opportunity for a come-out. When he died, she went to live with her aunt and uncle, who consider Constance to be something of an unpaid servant. She is at the ball in a drab dress, meant to melt into the background.

Constance is amazed when Lady Haughston seeks her out. Yet she enjoys their stroll and is thrilled when Francesca asks her to go shopping the next afternoon. On her wayward journey back to her aunt, Constance slips into the library for a bit of reflection time, only to be interrupted by a man who seems to be running from someone. He begs her indulgence and hides behind the door. Constance helps him by sending his pursuer, the mother of an eligible young debutante, off in another direction. Lord Dominic Leighton expresses eternal gratitude and they end up sharing a kiss.

As it turns out, Dominic is Francesca’s brother. And even though it is not in Francesca’s plan, Dominic and Constance find themselves attracted to each other. Circumstances put them together and they develop a relationship that has friendship but also passion. The conflict arises when Constance realizes that Dominic must marry money to restore his family’s estate, depleted by misused resources over the years.

While there is nothing new in the plot device of misunderstandings and barriers to marriage based on finances, Camp weaves a tale filled with fun, playful dialogue, learning each other’s secrets and sexual tension. The side players such as Leighton’s parents and Constance’s relatives are basically stereotypical. There is the scheming, beautiful-but-ugly-inside heiress intent on snagging Dominic for herself and of course, there is Constance’s conscience, telling her if she really loves Dominic, she will let him save his family.

And I loved every minute of the story. It moved with passion and with fun. Constance and Dominic were meant to be together and while there was less depth to Dominic than one might wish, he is a hero that clearly deserves his heroine. Francesca gets them going and then becomes almost oblivious to their attraction. But she is ultimately a great friend at the end and there is a hint that this series will be giving her another chance at romance herself, even as she helps others find happiness.

The Marriage Wager will help move Camp to your list of authors who are an automatic read. Despite some familiar plot devices, this story moves to the top as a pleasurable tale and one that is hard to put down.

--Shirley Lyons

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