Are romance novels and feminism mutually exclusive? Students of this fashionable debate, take note: Youíre afforded a new sourcebook in Deborah Haleís The Elusive Bride, which is an absolute pleasure for any connoisseur of intelligent, unique, and believable heroines.
The paragon in question, Cecily Tyrell, is ensconced in a nunnery for safekeeping while her family fights to place Empress Maude on Englandís throne. Cheerful, brash Cecily would rather take up arms herself, but she views the convent as a welcome respite from the marriage overtures of the loathsome Fulke de Boissard, who has betrayed Maudeís cause for that of King Stephen.
When Cecily wanders off during a sunny afternoon outing, she finds herself face-to-face with what she assumes is a scruffy ex-crusader on the lam. She offers him food and helps him hide. Despite the powerful attraction between them, neither imagine they will meet again.
Six weeks later, Cecily is called home to Brantham, where all is in chaos following a nearby battle. Empress Maude is waiting, and she orders Cecily, as the heir to Brantham, to marry Lord Rowan deCourtenay, whose lands, once combined with Cecilyís, will secure a key route for the Empressís armies. Shortly after Maudeís departure, Fulke de Boissard appears with his army and a threat: if Cecily does not marry him, he will destroy Brantham. Panicked, Cecily disguises herself as a leper and escapes on foot, vowing to find deCourtenay, marry him, and enlist his aid in winning Brantham back from Fulke.
Her journey is quickly interrupted as she comes upon two thieves intent on robbing none other than her scruffy crusader - who, unbeknownst to her, is actually Rowan deCourtenay, come to fetch his bride. Cecily saves his life, but they are quickly set upon by Fulkeís men and forced to flee together. Unsure whether to trust the beauteous stranger, Rowan lies and says he is his own half-brother.
Once he learns Cecilyís identity, he is horrified, for while he admires her spirit and courage, his disastrous first marriage has left him determined to marry only the meekest of women. Yet even as he continues to mislead her, their attraction deepens into a fiery longing, and Rowan wrestles with the temptation to set aside his fears and truly make her his own.
In a rather unremarkable plot, it is Cecily herself who provides all the surprises. During their first encounter, when Rowan clamps a hand over her mouth, she licks his palm to startle him into releasing her. Like everything Cecily does, this unconventional and potentially off-putting action is made thoroughly delightful by the casual humor with which she does it. Yet while she saves Rowan repeatedly and solves his problems with unconscious confidence, she also recognizes and rues her shortcomings: a clumsy discomfort in handling delicate emotional issues (so important when courting an Alpha male!) and an inability to bend rather than break.
Cecilyís character is so vibrant that as I read, I found myself disturbed by the realization that were I to meet her in real life, I might be too intimidated to get to know this wonderful person. Hence I suppose I can thank The Elusive Bride for making me vow to be more open-minded. What more could one ask?
However, for all Cecilyís charm, Iím a hero-oriented kind of gal, and this book misses five-heart fame because Rowan just canít compare to his heroine. Heís a victim of a bad first marriage, and his troubled conscience feels real, but it is difficult to sympathize with his inability to set aside the past and trust Cecily after she has again and again proved her courage and loyalty. Perhaps, as the lovers themselves recognize, they complement each other well, but one canít help feeling that Cecily gets the short end of the stick.
Ms. Haleís writing is impeccably fluid and the plot moves at a brisk pace, managing to obscure the few glaring notes of emotional untruth. Cecily recovers remarkably easily from the deaths of her father and brother, and sheís a bit too willing to forgive Rowanís more immature tendencies. We donít really mind, though. We like Cecily happy, because sheís such a joy to read about when she is.