The Count by Helena Dela
(Harper, $6.50, G) ISBN 0-06-109884-1
As I read The Count, I couldn't help thinking of that recent television fiasco, "Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire?" Despite the sheer offensiveness of the program and the not surprisingly disastrous results of the instant wedding, I couldn't help believing that there was a tiny germ of a romantic idea hidden somewhere amongst the vulgarity. This debut novel's plot has some of the same elements -- rich groom, two strangers marrying -- and my hopes were higher that a good romance would emerge. Unfortunately, that didn't happen.

Before the reader even meets the heroine of the novel, she is presented with a charming tete-a-tete between the titular hero, Count von Drachenfels (you can call him Rudi) and his fiery lover, Nadine. Rudi is the latest in a long line of von Drachenfels who have been afflicted by a curse laid upon the family twenty generations ago. Since then, every Countess has died in childbirth after giving birth to the son and heir. Rudi refuses to marry and subject a woman to certain death. Nadine, a manipulative bitch if there ever was one, thinks up a loophole. What if Rudi marries an ignorant stranger? The poor woman can give him the heir and die as predicted, and then Rudi will be free to marry Nadine. After all, the curse doesn't say anything about doomed second wives. Rudi is horrified but, caught up in Nadine's web, agrees to consider the idea.

Enter Ella, the mark. She is an impoverished British widow who is about to lose her job restoring antique books. Her boss, an old friend of Rudi's late father, reluctantly introduces the two. Rudi offers Ella a generous financial settlement and a home in his German castle. He even tries to be honest with her about the family curse. But Ella is past caring. When her husband died, she sank into depression, and in her deep funk Rudi's proposal seems perfectly reasonable. Without much further ado, the two are wed.

Here's where the book goes seriously awry. The marriage of convenience-turned love match is an old, tried and true plot. But it requires certain principles to work. The major requirement is the gradual development of a strong relationship between the hero and heroine. The other is a dramatic realization on the part of the hero that his original, business-like proposal was in shockingly bad taste and that a grand gesture of love is required to redeem himself to the woman he now knows he loves more than life itself.

Well, none of those romantic themes occur here (or if they do take place, they are so subtly British that I missed them). Rudi and Ella spend a few mildly enjoyable days together, but then he takes off for Munich and leaves Ella in the spooky castle, where she is kept company by the ghosts of the unfortunate von Drachenfels wives. Suddenly Ella decides she loves Rudi and wants a real marriage, but it's hard to understand how or why she would have this dramatic epiphany.

For most of the novel, Ella is passive, responding to other people's actions but never taking control of her own destiny. She moves to Rudi's castle, visits his dowager Aunt upon demand, and submits herself to thinly veiled insults from Rudi's friends who prefer Nadine's outrageous personality. Only at the very end of her pregnancy, when she finally realizes her life may be in danger, does she show some spunk. Her scenes with the ghosts display more energy and passion than any scenes she shares with Rudi. For his part, Rudi's compliance with Nadine's nefarious scheme makes him a hard hero to like, and I kept waiting for his grand gesture of love and repentance. It never happens, although he does seem vaguely remorseful.

Maybe The Count is supposed to be more black comedy than romance, but any potential humor is suffocated by Ella's deer-in-the-headlights personality. At a slim 240 pages, and with a number of irritating editing errors, The Count gives the impression of being a hastily written and released product. It's not quite as annoying as "Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire," but it doesn't do much to give multimillionaires -- or the women who marry them -- a good name.

--Susan Scribner

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