As Mary Kingsley:

Beyond the Sea

Wagered Hearts by Mary Kruger
(Zebra Regency, $4.99, G) ISBN 0-821-76997-9
Regency lovers, make way on your bookshelf for a delightful, out-of-the-ordinary heroine, one who would love to tell Society to go to the devil and insists she’ll never again set foot in Almacks, patronesses be hanged. What’s not to like?

Geoffrey Kirk, Viscount Sherbourne, is anesthetizing himself with drink and cards in a gaming hell one evening when he finds himself winning an estate from Sir Harold Wyndham. In desperation (or is it?) Sir Harold offers Geoffrey one final wager: instead of the estate, Sir Harold will wager the hand of his daughter, Ariel, in marriage. It’s an outrageous bet, and one that Geoffrey impulsively decides to accept. It will get his dowager grandmother off his back, and frankly, Geoffrey has so little interest in most things that one bride will do as well as another, and she’ll undoubtedly cry off anyway.

Tall. blonde Ariel, more Valkyrie than simpering miss, has lived in the country since her disastrous Season six years earlier. The house is maintained in shabby fashion by the only two servants left, plus Ariel. She lives a hand-to-mouth existence, never knowing when her father will appear needing money, or when a creditor will turn up looking for payment of a debt. Now there’s an attractive stranger on her doorstep, claiming that he’s won her hand in marriage. Ariel can easily believe that things have come to this, but, as she explains to Geoffrey, if she doesn’t honor the wager, events will transpire that will send her father to debtor’s prison. She can’t allow that. So, while standing in a dairy and churning butter, Ariel tells Geoffrey that yes, she will marry him. He’s annoyed. And intrigued by her humor and forthrightness.

Geoffrey’s mother and grandmother immediately insist that Ariel come to London to acquire some polish and be presented to the ton. Geoffrey’s initial dread turns to shock when Ariel cleans up very well, indeed. Soon there are inklings that he may have found his true match. Ariel mirrors his own dislike of the ton; she wants to visit the British Museum, the Royal Academy, the Tower of London, the bookshops. Geoffrey finds himself more and more drawn to this bright, funny, refreshingly clear-eyed woman.

But Geoffrey enjoys gaming, and Ariel has seen her father’s life ruined because of it. And a jealous rival is out to destroy Geoffrey in any way possible. When Ariel is led into a high-stakes card game and feels for herself the dangerous excitement of the wager, a minor disaster occurs. Soon Ariel will face the toughest test of all: trusting Geoffrey with the truth about her mistakes.

Ariel is one of the more memorable heroines to appear in a Regency romance. Her character is carefully drawn as a young woman who suffered the humiliation of being tall and blonde when the fashion was for short and dark. Since that disastrous Season, she has matured into a woman of strength and practicality. The artificiality of Society means nothing next to the daily efforts of keeping a small estate from going under. Geoffrey, used to the inanities of the ton, is taken aback to find she can pierce his shell of ennui with one direct look.

The conflict was equally strong. Ariel has lived most of her life under the uncertainties of a gamester father; the last thing she wants is to marry someone just like him. But Geoffrey has closed off most of his emotions; it’s only at the gaming tables that he feels a surge of excitement. If they are going to follow their hearts, Geoffrey will have to admit that Ariel brings more excitement and fulfillment to his life than gaming ever did, and Ariel will need to trust Geoffrey when he says he’s not like Sir Harold.

What kept this book from five-heart keeper status was the plot. About two-thirds of the way along, Ariel comes to a crossroad in her relationship with Geoffrey and makes a decision that is out of character with what we’ve come to know about her. This plot twist is used to set up the climax, but since it doesn’t seem to fit the Ariel we’ve come to know and enjoy, the events that follow seem forced at best.

However, the book is well-written, the characters are certainly sympathetic, and the premise was delightful. Wagered Hearts is definitely worth your time. And readers may be interested to know that the author, Mary Kruger, also writes as Mary Kingsley, so if you enjoy this one, you may want to search out her backlist.

--Cathy Sova

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