The Charade

His Every Kiss

Not So Innocent

The Marriage Bed
by Laura Lee Guhrke
(Avon, $5.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-06-077473-8
I never really warmed up to the characters in this book, which made this a lackluster read for me. On the other hand, I read it right through without taking a lot of notes Ė which means that I didnít have any strong negative feelings about it, either.

Viscount and Lady Hammond only lived together for six months following their wedding eight years ago. At that point, Viola discovered that John, with whom she was passionately in love, did not love her and married her for her fortune.

In fact, as far as she knows, John kept his mistress right up until the time they were married, and his many affairs since then are no secret among the ton. John, who shuns anything resembling commitment, eventually discards each of his paramours when they become too demanding. John and Violaís relationship since the separation has become so acrimonious that they wonít even attend the same social events.

Unfortunately, John now finds himself in a bit of bother. His cousin and heir, and his cousinís only son, die unexpectedly. There is another cousin, but John has spent the last eight years bringing the debt-ridden estate he inherited back to solvency and taking care of the tenants who were badly neglected by his father. The cousin who now stands to inherit is a fool who will undo all his work.

Which leaves just one option. John must persuade the wife who hates him to give him a son. Viola, unfortunately, is unsympathetic Ė and she knows that she cannot possibly allow herself to become emotionally vulnerable to John again. Once the philandering cad gets what he wants, again, heíll just break her heart, again.

This book certainly presents an interesting problem and some interesting challenges, and itís a clever plot device. When Viola resists more conventional courtship methods, John has a legal card to play; not even her brother, the duke, can shield Viola from a fellow peer who insists on claiming his legal rights as a husband.

Ms. Guhrke is a talented and adept writer, so the pages turn swiftly, and the characters are lively on the page. These are good things in a book that is very much character driven. Unfortunately, however, the characters of Viola and John donít change very much during the first three quarters of the story, so once youíve got the picture youíre pretty much looking at that same picture for most of the book.

Viola could be forgiven for the starry-eyed romanticism of her youth Ė she was only seventeen when they married Ė and for the fact that her reaction was somewhat less than mature when things didnít go her way. But she doesnít actually seem to have grown up any since then. Sheís spent the intervening years trying to stop loving John, but none of them attempting to understand the situation better or acknowledging her own culpability in the failure of their marriage. And she certainly isnít going to forgive him for not remaining celibate in the years since she threw him out of bed.

No, as far as Viola is concerned, all their problems are strictly Johnís fault and sheís more than entitled to wallow in blame and self pity. Forever.

John has apparently changed in the intervening years, but we donít see the change. Instead, weíre told that his hard work and dedication Ė combined with Violaís money Ė have enabled him to turn his estates around. Emotionally, though, heís stuck in the same time warp as Viola. He likes himself pretty well the way he is, and doesnít see any reason to change. He wonít even make a commitment to Viola to be faithful if they do get back together.

Other than Johnís ex-mistresses Ė who send Viola into fits of pique every time she runs across one Ė there isnít much external conflict, so, readable as it is, the book ends up going around in circles for much too long, basically because the characters donít want to talk to each other. Then, things turn around abruptly. Too abruptly to be satisfying, to my way of thinking.

It was okay, but I didnít think it was up to Ms. Guhrkeís previous books or considerable ability.

-- Judi McKee

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