The Wagering Widow

Gallant Officer, Forbidden Lady
by Diane Gaston
(Harl. Hist. #972, $5.99, PG) ISBN 978-0373-29572-2
Jack Vernon is a soldier and an artist. He grew up in Bath with his mother and sister. Once his father passed away, his mother began seeing Lionel Tranville. They never married but as Jack grew older, he understood the situation – his mother was Tranville’s mistress. Tranville educated Jack’s sister and bought Jack his commission, but Jack always resented him. Fighting in Spain and France, Jack realized he hated war. To make matters worse, he served under Tranville, who cared little for his men. Tranville’s natural son was even worse and Jack hated them both.

Jack returned home to become an artist. He had nightmares and wasn’t really happy; he also hated that his mother still waited for Tranville and was at his beck and call whenever he wanted her.  

Jack started to make a name for himself, doing portraits and war scenes. He was lucky enough to have two paintings hung at Somerset House, a well-respected museum. While there viewing his work, he meets Ariana Blane. He is intrigued, but she gets away before he can find out where she lives.

Ariana is the daughter of a famous actress and has dreams of surpassing even her mother’s fame.  Ariana is also determined to do so without selling her body to the highest bidder.  So far, she has succeeded.  She is intrigued by Jack, although she did not realize he was the artist of the beautiful paintings. Ariana is thrilled to be tapped for the starring role in Cleopatra and Anthony.  The man who will fund the production is none other than General Tranville, who also wants Ariana in his bed. Tranville commissions Jack to paint her – thinking to use the portraits as a billboard for the play.

Jack and Ariana are thrilled to meet again and their sessions become more than just painting. But Tranville is out there, putting more and more pressure on Ariana and using Jack’s mother on the side. When Napoleon rises again, Jack and Tranville are pushed back into war. Their futures depend on what happens at Waterloo.

I started off liking this tale, with Jack being an interesting character. He had nightmares of the war and was horrified when he found men looting and raping. It is a unique hero who has a trade and is not a member of the ton.  But he was always down and brooding, worrying about Tranville, worrying about his nightmares, etc.  At times, he was too depressed.  I liked Ariana and her conviction to not just be another actress moving from bed to bed in order to get a part.  She was sincere when she told Jack that was not how she lived, yet she falls easily into his bed. She is almost too cheery at times, certain that she could work things out even when circumstances are dire. The contrast is strong and I struggled with them as a couple because of it.

I also struggled with the whole Tranville issue. Since he has a major influence on the entire plot, I found this to be a problem. First, he is such a snake in Jack’s eyes, it is hard to figure out the man from the perception. Yet, he seems to treat Jack’s mother with respect and did take care of her children…something not really seen by men with their mistresses all the time.  There is a subplot with Jack’s sister Nancy and her friend Michael that I also found distracting. The tale carries a feeling of hopelessness that is not engaging. Jack felt hopeless in dealing with Tranville due to his mother’s situation. It felt hopeless that Ariana could convince Tranville to fund her play yet leave her alone. Nancy is being forced to marry someone else because Michael has nothing to offer her. This overall aura of hopelessness was too depressing. I felt like the lack of money really made these people feel they couldn’t have a good life. 

Gallant Officer, Forbidden Lady is a tale with many layers. For me, it was a little too dark. 

--Shirley Lyons 

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