True Pretenses by Karen Lingefelt
(Leisure, $5.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-8439-5292-X
Lingefelt was a finalist in the 2002 New Historical Voice Contest and she shows a lot of promise with True Pretenses. Sadly, the overall story is a bit uneven with many outrageous plot devices and a lot of misunderstandings. The promise is seen in the attraction between the two lead characters.

The pretense is simple. Serena Langley was betrothed to Simon Woodard, heir to the Duke of Fairborough when he died. Now she is betrothed to his brother, Kit Woodard, and he must marry her by his thirtieth birthday in order to claim sixty thousand pounds. Trouble is, Serena does not want to marry him. When he returns to England after serving in India for nine years, she refuses to see him.

So, Kit and his friend, the Duke of Colfax, hatch a scheme. Kit will pose as a new coachman in order to gain access to Serena and get to know her. When he is discovered by Serena’s abigail early on, they hatch an even more dastardly scheme. Here it is in the words of the duenna:

“I propose that for the time being, you continue being your charming self to her, but as Alfred Gibson. She’s desperate for a way out of her marriage to Fairborough. One certain way out of it would be for the coachman to seduce her!”

She goes on “Once she’s been compromised by you – as Gibson – she’ll think that you – as Fairborough – won’t want a soiled dove for a bride…Once she considers herself a soiled dove in the eyes of Fairborough, she’ll think her cousin will have to marry him instead…When she realizes the bridegroom is really her dashing, beloved coachman in disguise – well, I daresay true love will prevail.”

Yes, a complicated bit of mummery leads itself to a convoluted story. There are a large number of subplots and sidebars thrown into this and it is difficult to keep up.

Serena has her reasons in her own mind. There is a family scandal where Kit supposedly tried to take advantage of her aunt, who was mute. (Kit’s version of this is vastly different, but why should Serena believe him?) There is some rather tortuous story about Kit’s stepmother having a secret for which she is being blackmailed. This draws into the story Serena’s sister who is “different” (apparently a person with mental retardation and some type of artistic genius). One reason she gives for not wanting to marry Kit is the sister’s vulnerability, i.e. if Kit attacks a woman who is mute, who says he won’t go after someone who is as powerless.

The whole subplot about the sixty thousand pounds is a little far-fetched too. Supposedly this clause in the will was to force the marriage. But if Kit doesn’t marry, the money goes to a dastardly cousin who runs slaves in the West Indies. So you see, Kit doesn’t want or need the money, he just doesn’t want his cousin to get it.

The story abounds with misunderstanding after misunderstanding. But I found myself drawn to Kit and Serena. Kit is a smart ingenious man. He pulls off being a coachman yet doesn’t act like any coachman we have ever met before. The antics are funny, especially when his so-called friend the Duke of Colfax keeps trying to “help”. For instance, Kit leaves a buggy and horses alone to help Serena, only to discover that someone has stolen the coach upon his return. He is forced to hunt all over for it, finding it in his friend’s stable.

Serena is a woman with a strong sense of self but she is too wrapped up in trying not to marry the Duke to really keep her head on straight. She comes to her senses eventually but only after several bouts of feeling sorry for herself and raging at Kit. Much of the misunderstandings result from Serena misinterpreting statements and jumping to conclusions. The first time was understandable, but by the fourth or fifth time, it was too much.

What kept me coming back were the love scenes between Kit and Serena when Kit was the coachman. The sexual tension builds nicely and they do fall in love. I liked Serena when she recognized she loved the coachman and didn’t get haughty. I liked Kit when he showed his heart when he was worried that Serena wouldn’t love him if he was the Duke. There were some great romantic scenes that warmed my heart.

Alas, it is too little in a sea of confusion, subplots, floundering and twists. On some level, I liked the attempt made by this author to write a unique story with a good pair. On the other level, I struggled with all the stuff (for lack of a better word) thrown into True Pretenses.

--Shirley Lyons

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