My Lady Governess

Willed to Wed

The Willful Miss Winthrop

 
The Wagered Wife by Wilma Counts
(Zebra, $4.99, PG) ISBN 0-8217-6806-9
****
Wilma Counts is fast becoming one of my favorite Regency authors. Her books combine interesting plots, well drawn characters, and a nice recreation of the world of the early 19th century. The Wagered Wife does nothing but add to my appreciation of her talent.

The Honorable Trevor Jeffries, son of the Earl of Wyndham, has fallen into bad habits and bad company. The young man - Trevor is just barely twenty-one - cannot forgive himself for the accident that took the life of his twin brother and his best friend. One evening, he gambles so heavily that his case is desperate when his opponent offers him a strange wager. If he wins the next hand, Baron Fiske will forgive his debt; if he loses the next hand, his lordship will also forgive his debt and Trevor will marry the baron’s ward. Trevor accepts the offer he can’t refuse and loses. Thus, he must marry Miss Caitlin Woodbridge.

Caitlin is not quite seventeen years old. Since the death of her clergyman father several years earlier, she has lived with her step-aunt and uncle. When her aunt informs her that she is to marry the following Saturday, she is most unhappy. She believes she loves the young son of a neighbor. But Caitlin has no choice. So Trevor and Caitlin marry and head off to a property he has inherited from his grandmother.

Caitlin is not all the kind of woman Trevor finds attractive. She is short and still has her baby fat. Despite a somewhat less than satisfactory wedding night, the two might have made a go of their forced marriage had Trevor’s family not intervened. Appalled by the scandal that blows up when news of the wagered wedding gets out, they convince the young man that Caitlin was part of a plot to gull him into marriage, that Baron Fiske was intent on finding a husband for his pregnant niece. Despite the evidence of his own experience, Trevor is persuaded that he should leave the country till the furor dies down and that his wife should be “convinced” to agree to a divorce. He is kind enough to send his aunt to keep his wife comfortable while he joins the army.

Five years pass and the war is over. The callow youth has become a seasoned officer. He returns to London to make some startling discoveries. First, his wife has succeeded in making his estate profitable. Second, there is a child who, he finally realizes, can be none other than his own. And finally, Caitlin has grown into a beautiful and desirable young woman.

Caitlin has refused the Wyndham family’s demands that she agree to a divorce; she will not cast the stain of bastardy on her beloved daughter Ashley. So Trevor and Caitlin face the challenge of overcoming old hurts and betrayals and make a marriage in the face of his family’s refusal to acknowledge Caitlin’s existence.

A “forced marriage” scenario offers lots of opportunities for believable conflict and Counts skillfully takes advantage of them. What makes the love story work is the fact that both the hero and the heroine were very young and immature at the beginning and that both have grown into attractive and worthy people. There is a lot for both to overcome, particularly Caitlin. Being abandoned by her husband with nary a word but a short letter is hard to forgive. For his part, Trevor had heard not a word from his wife in five years (not her fault, but his family’s), and has to come to terms with the changes in her and her undoubted success in making a financial go of his property. Counts does not fall into the trap of making the adjustments seem too easy. These two have to work for their happy ending.

The Wagered Wife is a most enjoyable Regency romance. Counts has taken a familiar plot and given it her own particular twist. Her characters, both primary and secondary, come alive for the reader. I am looking forward to her next release and hope she keeps writing Regency romances for a long while.

--Jean Mason


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