When You Wish
by Jane Feather, Patricia Coughlin, Sharon and Tom Curtis, Elizabeth Elliott, Patricia Potter and Suzanne Robinson
(Bantam, $5.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-553-57642-7
*****
If you're like me, you read anthologies because sometimes a full-length novel is simply too much or you like having stories by several of your favorite romance authors in one volume. Are you often disappointed because the stories in anthologies are generally of poor quality? Do you wish just once you could pick up an anthology where the stories are uniformly good and not a complete waste of money?

Your wish has just come true. In When You Wish, Bantam Books has published six stories by some of the biggest names in romance writing and not a single one is a clunker.

Romance anthologies generally fall into three broad categories: (a) the stories have similar settings (such as A Regency Halloween), (b) the stories have a linking theme ("Big, Bad, and Buck Naked"), or (c) the stories have virtually no connection whatsoever ("Stories Slapped Together in Summer 1997").

When You Wish falls into the second category. In a Prologue written by Jane Feather, a girl in Britain during the time of the Druids is given a distinctive bottle with a message inside: "To thine own wish be true. Do not follow the moth to the star." Set entirely in England, each story traces the passage of the bottle from person to person and the resulting romantic involvements.

The first story, "Wishful Thinking" by Jane Feather is set in 1814. Lady Rosalind Belmont (the youngest sister of the heroine in Feather's Valentine) is a dedicated scientist whose goal is to be admitted to the Royal Society. She has adopted a masculine name and submitted a research paper purportedly by her male persona. When Charles Larchmont challenges her paper claiming to have made the same discovery, Rosie engages in a correspondence with him accusing him of plagiarism. Charles decides to confront this young upstart, but before he can meet the male scientist he is intrigued by the serious girl he sees mucking in the mud gathering scientific specimens. Equally intrigued by Charles, Rosie has purchased the bottle and interprets the message to mean that she can have but one wish: either membership in the Royal Society or a desired romance since no male will acknowledge that a female might have a brain. She can't have both. Or can she?

Any impression that such a story must be serious and imbued with deep societal implications is false. In general this is a light-hearted romp with several laugh-out-loud scenes. Rosie is a delightful heroine: intelligent, good-natured and intrepid. (Her three older sisters get involved, too.) Charles is a vintage Feather hero: principled, determined, and open-minded. What a great beginning to the anthology.

"The Blackmoor Devil" by Patricia Coughlin set in 1815 is the story of Christian Lowell, earl of Blackmoor, and Lady Delilah Ashton Moon who first met and loved eight years earlier. They have both purchased concoctions from an herbalist: Christian wants to remove a curse placed on him and Delilah wants a potion to make her violently ill so that she can't attend a ball where her brother is going to announce her unwanted betrothal to an elderly duke. But they each receive the wrong bottle. When she learns that Christian has drunk the potion (with the expected unpleasant consequences), Delilah decides that he should tarnish her reputation so that the duke will withdraw his suit. Christian, however, is cursed with bad luck and discrediting Delilah's reputation is not so easily accomplished.

While not quite as humorous as the previous story, there were some very amusing scenes in this story. Christian is a very appealing hero, and his "curse" added an original touch to what otherwise might have been a pedestrian story.

"The Natural Child" by Sharon and Tom Curtis (a/k/a Laura London and Robin James) is set in 1818. Lucinda Hibbert and her friends plot to kidnap Lord Kendal (for the most altruistic of reasons, of course). While fishing, she catches a large sturgeon and discovers the bottle inside; one of her friends, a gypsy girl, warns Lucy that the bottle is magic. Lucy takes the warning seriously and carefully avoids wishing for anything, but when she spies Henry Lamb, the notorious seducer she's admired from afar, embracing a partially dressed woman she inadvertently wishes that she could be in a similar situation. She quickly tries to unwish the wish, but it's too late. Lucy's friends kidnap that man they see making love to Lady Kendal, but, oops!, that's Henry Lamb not Lord Kendal. When Lucy becomes locked in a room with Henry, she knows that the magic will persist until her wish is fully realized.

This is the Curtises' first published romance in over a decade. Lucy is the model Curtis heroine: simultaneously both sweet and caustic. ("'Don't be stupid?'" she repeated. "What sort of thing is that to say? I thought you were a famous seducer. Is that what you say to women?") It's no wonder Henry falls in love with her. Who could resist? This is falling in love the way we all wish it would be. Even if this isn't the long-awaited full-length book, the legions of devoted fans of this husband-wife team will be thrilled to be able to read their lyrical prose again. Just on the basis of this story alone, this anthology would be a keeper.

"Bewitched" by Elizabeth Elliott set in 1820 tells the story of Faro Burke and James Drake, Lord Wyatt. Wyatt's father lost the family fortune to Faro's father who in turn lost his family fortune to other gamblers. Wyatt has labored to recoup the loss but believes that marrying a wealthy heiress will secure the family's financial position. His mother has invited prospective brides to a house party, but it isn't the wealthy heiress that Wyatt's attracted to but the impoverished Faro who does psychic readings to earn money. Wyatt is skeptical of Faro's abilities and still bears a grudge against her father. How can the bottle bring them together?

This story is less appealing and less entertaining than the preceding three. The author has tried to tackle a whole book's amount of problems in a shorter literary form, and in loading her characters with obstacles, the author has loaded the story with dark overtones. Wyatt is brooding and suspicious; Faro has an excess of emotional baggage from her childhood. It's hard to believe that true happiness is possible for two such dour characters.

In "Forever" by Patricia Potter set in 1830, Holly Hasting's father has resorted to smuggling to acquire the funds necessary for the family to emigrate to America. Justin Talmadge, a mysterious stranger recently arrived in the small Cornish village, sees Holly assisting in stashing the contraband and blackmails her into helping him catch the aristocratic head of the smuggling operation. Holly, who holds the bottle as a lucky charm, is attracted to Justin but knows the disparity in their social classes will deny them a future together. After many bleak years as an undercover agent, Justin is attracted by Holly's beauty and innocence and is concerned about the dangers she faces. Can Justin expose the villain but protect Holly and her family?

Potter is primarily known for her westerns, but in this story she shows that her emotionally numb, world-weary heroes can exist in any locale. This story hangs on its characters, and Justin is the best of them. Holly seems too idealized: the girl from the poor family devotedly caring for her sick mother, well-educated, and with loads of free time to flit around the countryside and run into the hero. The plot has a major hole: if it was this easy to trick the villain, why did it take Justin fifteen years to set it up? This is another story that fell beneath the standard set by the first three.

The final story, "The Unwanted Bride" by Suzanne Robinson, is set in Victorian England in 1857. Temple Stirling, earl of Darent, was a younger son who never expected to inherit the title. As a cavalry officer in the Crimean War, he was badly injured and now suffers flashbacks to scenes of battle. Since he must marry to pass on the title, he resolves to marry a quiet, unassuming woman who will not disturb his peace. Accordingly, he writes to the military physician who saved his life and proposes, unseen, to the most beautiful of the three daughters based on their photographs. But the photographs had been switched in their frames, and the daughter who arrives at his mansion, Melisande (nicknamed May) Peabody, is the least attractive as well as animated and strong-willed. May is an animal-lover and has adopted mistreated animals. Her pets disturb Temple's peace and demolish shelves and shelves of priceless artworks. Temple doesn't want such a woman for a wife, and May doesn't want to remain where she isn't wanted. Can two such dissimilar people fall in love?

This is a solid story with which to conclude the anthology. Temple and May are both believable and sympathetic; there's little doubt that they'll be good for each other. My only reservations to unqualified praise concern May and her pets. For such a determined, outspoken woman, May uncharacteristically runs away from too many confrontations with Temple, and she needs obedience training for those pets: after the third pair of pants and second mantelpiece of ornaments, it's time for the leash or the stable. In general, however, the author does a good job of balancing seriousness and humor.

While not every story in When You Wish deserves five stars, not one of them deserves less than three -- something that the vast majority of anthologies could never claim. In overall quality, this may be the best romance anthology ever published. If a publisher can do it well once, can't it be done again? Please.

--Lesley Dunlap


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