The Wagering Widow
by Diane Gaston
(Harl. Hist., $5.50, PG-13) ISBN 0-373-29388-7
Most readers will tell you it's all in the beginning: who wants to read a book that has you nodding from the start? But after forcing my eyes to stay open for The Wagering Widow's dull opening, I'm not so sure. The second half makes up for the initial drabness and has me really hoping Diane Gaston will be back with more.

Guy, Lord Keating believes Emily Duprey and her much-discussed inheritance will pay off his family's crippling debts. Because of his financial problems, he's convinced her father will never agree to the match. Emily thinks marriage will take her away from her family's cruelty and abuse. So when Guy asks her to elope to Scotland, she agrees.

The happy event is followed with unpleasant surprises. Guy discovers Emily has no fortune. Because he has already deceived her once, he feels he has no right to share their marriage bed, at least not until he finds some way to secure his female dependents' future. If he has to turn to the gaming tables that ruined his father, so be it. Meanwhile, Emily learns she has traded in one abusive domestic situation for another. Her mother-in-law is disparaging and cold, and her husband is as much of a gambler as her father. He too prefers the card tables to her company.

Emily decides not to put up with this situation. With a little money, she can leave her husband and fend for herself. What quicker way to obtain a much-needed fortune than at cards? She dons a mask and frequents a gaming establishment. Here, she begins to collect a coterie of male admirers that includes her apparently unfaithful husband. But things really aren't what they seem. Unbeknownst to her, Guy has seen through her masquerade, and for reasons of his own has decided not to let on. With both believing they hold the winning hand, the stage is set for a battle of hearts.

There is much to like in this novel - once you actually get there. Unfortunately, the set-up takes too long, and because of the characters' initially dismal and depressing outlook, it drags a bit. It's not until we're halfway into the book that the pacing and the mood pick up. From here, things really start rolling, and they keep on doing so right to the end. Just when I thought I'd figured out how Emily and Guy were going to fix their little comedy of identity, another problem was thrown their way. Wagers, hidden secrets, threat of scandal, and family tensions all play their part in overturning what could easily have become a tedious and predictable read. My only gripe with this half is the speed with which Guy's financial problems are resolved. If all it takes several turns of the cards, it can't have been all that bad. (Then again, I'm no gambler, and I haven't the slightest idea of the high stakes some people are willing to play.)

A masked and merry widow suggests a lot of light-hearted fun. In fact, there isn't as much banter, wit and flirtation as might be expected. Instead, the mask feeds into the novel's underlying theme, that of the disguises people wear to survive. Even before they embark on this adventure, both Emily and Guy have long been playing a role. He must pretend to be well-off, knowing full well his family estate is one step from ruin. She has been hiding her emotions and happiness under a lusterless fašade to avoid unwanted attention from her manipulative and self-serving parents.

Oddly enough, rather than concealing her wishes and desires, Emily's mask ultimately reveals them, much to her husband's delight. As Guy begins to understand this part of his bride's behavior, he also sees how similar it is to his own. Misunderstandings, bets and card tables aside, they really are well matched after all. Likewise, its bad beginning aside, The Wagering Widow is an entertaining, appealing and intelligent novel, after all.

--Mary Benn

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