An unusual hero and plot set Deborah Haleís new Regency historical apart and make The Wedding Wager an interesting read. It isnít often that we have a son of a tenant farmer who has not made a fortune but who has rather spent ten years in His Majestyís army as a romantic hero. Sergeant Morse Archer makes this book both different and enjoyable.
We first meet the sergeant as a patient in an army hospital. He was wounded while trying to rescue his lieutenant during the retreat from Bucaso, an action contrary to his orders which could lead to a court martial. Lieutenant Peverill had not survived his own wounds, but his father, Sir Hugo, is grateful to the sergeant; at least he could bring his sonís body home for burial.
Sir Hugo has sent his niece, Leonora Freemantle, to offer the sergeant a proposition. Her uncle has bet Leonora that her unorthodox teaching methods will not work. If she can show him differently, he will fund the school she wants to start. If she fails, she must marry the man of his choice. The guinea pig for this experiment is to be Sergeant Archer. She has three months to turn him into a gentleman so that he can fool the good people of Bath with his newly obtained education.
At first, Morse rejects her proposition; heís had a bad experience in his past with another ladyís propositions. But Sir Hugo is not to be refused and Morse has few other options. He canít return to his regiment because of his crippled leg; he has no money and no prospects. The promise of a reward should he succeed decides the matter. Morse doesnít believe in cutting off his nose to spite his face.
At first Morse is a recalcitrant student; he isnít happy with being treated like a school boy. But then he discovers exactly how much Leonora has at stake and decides to cooperate fully. He finds the bookish, prim woman who has become his teacher surprisingly appealing, especially given her enthusiasm for sharing her knowledge with him and with those less fortunate than she.
For her part, Leonora comes to enjoy the time she spends with Morse. She appreciates his quick intelligence, his wit, and his diligence in trying to help her win her wager. But Leonora has vowed never to marry; her motherís unhappy experiences have convinced her never to trust her life to a man. She is inherently suspicious of any man who would find her attractive. Thus, she easily (perhaps too easily) misunderstands Morseís behavior.
The story consists both of Morseís education in the ways of a gentleman and his success in convincing Bath society that he was gently born. Indeed, the dashing soldierís success with the Bath misses adds another complexity to the story.
As indicated above, Morse is an unusual hero. His experiences and attitudes are very different from those of the upper classes. Leonora is a more familiar character - the bluestocking, dedicated spinster who finds love in a most unexpected place but who does not trust her own feelings. The secondary characters - Sir Hugo, his nephew Algie, the people encountered in Bath - are all well developed.
Deborah Haleís stories suggest that she is willing to depart from the tried and true plots. The Wedding Wager is just enough different from the usual Regency historical to be interesting. Readers who are looking for something different may want to give this one a try.