By Arrangement by Madeline Hunter
(Bantam, $4.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-553-58222-4
****
Madeline Hunter's debut novel, By Arrangement, is an intelligent historical romance with an interesting premise: what if a noblewoman were ordered by the king to marry a common merchant? Lady Christiana Fitzwaryn is about to find out.

Christiana has given her heart and her body to Stephen Percy, handsome scion of a noble family. The king has other plans for her, however. King Edward needs money, and lots of it, if he is to invade France. He is willing to barter his ward, Christiana, to his friend, David de Abyndon, a prosperous textile merchant. David is all too willing, even more so once he gets a look at the beautiful Christiana. Christiana has other plans. She visits David, planning to end her betrothal to a disgusting old commoner by confessing her indiscretion with Stephen. Instead, she finds herself face to face with a handsome young man, one who is unmoved by her pleas. No amount of protestations or insults on her part will sway him. He intends to wed Christiana.

David has a few secrets of his own. He's a bastard, son of a gentlewoman cast out by her family for refusing to name her lover. Raised by his mother and her employer, a textile merchant who apprenticed young David, he has made a success of his business. Yet there is a desire in him to know more of his past.

David and Christiana are wed, but not before Christiana finds out a humiliating truth: her ignorance of sex has caused her to make a false assumption about her relationship with Stephen Percy. David is delighted, and their initial sexual interlude plants the seed of a deep passion within Christiana. Soon their relationship is blossoming into love. But what of Stephen? Can Christiana let her infatuation go? And will David find the truth he seeks?

This is a bare-bones outline of a fairly complex novel, one with layers of plot and a cast of secondary characters who all serve a purpose. Christiana, who starts out as an immature young girl awash in first love, matures into a woman who is deserving of David. David, who enters into the marriage mainly as a business arrangement, finds to his astonishment that he's falling in love with his own wife. Can he give her what she deserves, since he's not a member of the nobility? And what about the deal he made with the king before he even laid eyes on Christiana?

The main characters felt unevenly balanced. Christiana, though a bit irritating at the outset with her puppy-love infatuation, gains the reader's sympathy as the stars fall from her eyes and she learns to look inside a man for his worth. We know where she's coming from, we know her background, and she's understandable. David is a bit harder to grasp. His past is revealed in dribs and drabs, with the result that his motivations are never quite clear. Who is this man? Why does he desire this marriage so much? What is he really trying to gain? Though all is revealed in the end, David remained a cipher for most of the story, and that's a shame. He's a wonderful hero -- kind, gentle, and strong. And passionate. Oh my, yes.

The historical backdrop is richly drawn and adds to the story. The time frame is unusual enough to grab the reader's interest, and life at Edward's court is portrayed vividly and openly. Jealousies and intrigues abound, and nobody is infallible. Well done.

By Arrangement is a fine start to Madeline Hunter's romance writing career. Her first book is a powerful love story, engrossing from the start and satisfying to the end. She's going straight to the "Must-Buy" list.

--Cathy Sova


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