Karen Hawkins delivers an impressive sophomore effort in A Belated Bride. Arabella Hadley is on her way home one evening when her carriage nearly runs over a man lying in the road. Stopping to help, she is stunned to find Lucien Devereaux, Duke of Wexford (whom readers met in Hawkinsí first book, The Abduction of Julia). Lucien and Arabella have a past. Ten years ago, she was an innocent sixteen-year-old who fell madly in love with the handsome nobleman, and he appeared to return the feeling. Then Lucien left, never to return, and married a wealthy heiress soon after. Since then, Arabella has single-handedly kept her family home afloat while caring for two elderly aunts and her war-wounded brother, Robert. Lucien is the last man on earth she wants to see.
But heís been thrown from his horse and injured, and Arabella reluctantly takes him to Rosemont, her home. No sooner is Lucien ensconced in the house than Aunt Jane and Aunt Emma begin matchmaking. Arabella has more than her auntís schemes to trouble her, however. Rosemont needs repairs, she owes money on a loan, and Robert is confined to a wheelchair for reasons the doctors canít determine. Loyal servants and smuggled shipments of fine cognac are providing her with some answers to her problems.
Lucien is astonished to find himself back in Arabellaís proximity. For ten years heís anguished over the way they parted, and his guilt and frustration have been constant companions. Heís now a widower, free to try and recapture their lost love, but Arabella keeps him at armís length. And the worst part is, he canít blame her. Forced into an unwanted marriage by his fatherís death and subsequent overwhelming debts, he never wanted to leave Arabella. Now heís in possession of a fortune in his own right, of his own making, and Fate has given Lucien a second chance to win Arabellaís heart.
As Lucienís suspicions deepen regarding the smuggling activity in the area, and as the two aunts plot and scheme, Arabella and Lucien are drawn together in ways they hadnít expected.
Lucien was the standout in this story. Hawkins does a fine job of making the reader feel his sense of frustration and loss. His longing for Arabella is palpable, and one gets the feeling that he really will do anything to win her back. Arabella, for her part, is determined not to listen to a word Lucien says, including any explanation as to his sudden disappearance ten years earlier. This skated perilously close to ďplot deviceĒ in my mind. Several times heís about to tell her the truth, and she insists she doesnít want to hear it, leaves the room, runs away, etc. This can be exasperating for the reader, while making Arabella look a bit immature for the first half of the story.
There are a host of interesting secondary characters in the mix. Robert, the brother, is searching for a treasure supposedly buried by a long-ago ancestor. The aunts fuss and twitter, and one of them has a love interest of her own. Lucienís younger sister comes for a visit, and finds an unexpected romance. Even the servants are fun. The story is richly populated with characters that are well-developed and entertaining.
On a side note, whatís with the silly cover art and the back blurb which gives away most of the plot? We sometimes get accused of telling too much story in our reviews; itís disheartening to see it on the cover of a book. And the cover, though pretty, was annoying, like it was placed on the wrong book. Surely there could be some effort to get a few details right.
A Belated Bride is a clever, engrossing romance with a lot to offer. The sexual tension between Lucien and Arabella steams; they do have a past history, and the author makes the most of it. Lucienís struggle to break down the walls of Arabellaís defense will leave you rooting for him. And thereís another book coming, starring Nick, the third character in The Abduction of Julia. Karen Hawkins is fast proving herself to be an enduring talent in historical romance. Watch for her.