Marriage by Design by Jill Metcalf
(Leisure, $4.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-8439-4553-2
****
I had never read any of Jill Metcalf's books before I picked up Marriage By Design, but I will certainly look for her work in the future. Marriage By Design has a plucky heroine, a stalwart hero, an unusual setting, and a charming love story. What more can you ask from a romance?

The unusual setting is the Yukon during the gold rush, a locale and a time I had not yet encountered before and about which I knew little. I didn't know exactly when the Yukon gold rush took place -- the 1890's -- I didn't know where Dawson was -- very far north and very far west -- I didn't know that Dawson could be reached by steamer and, most important to this story, I didn't realize that the Yukon gold rush was not as wild and wooly as the California gold rush fifty years earlier.

Twenty-eight-year old Stone MacGregor is an Inspector with the Northwest Mounted Police, the organization responsible for the relatively more law-abiding nature of the Yukon gold rush. Originally assigned to oversee customs operations at Chilkoot Pass, after a year and a half, he is reassigned to Dawson where, working undercover, his mission is to nose out swindlers and con artists.

The first probable con artist Stone notices is Coady Blake. Coady is an entrepreneur whose main business is renting tents and stoves to the miners out of her tent-storefront. She also writes letters for the miners, sells freshly baked bread two days a week, and advertises "Marriage By Design," all for a price. Miss Coady Blake is definitely in business to make money.

Stone is immediately suspicious of…and immediately intrigued by…the attractive Coady. Determined not to get personally involved with the "curious, little brunette," he begins his investigations into Coady's business by inquiring into the credentials of her partner in Marriage By Design, the preacher Zachary Bloodstone. Too bad Coady hadn't been equally careful: Zachary Bloodstone is no preacher, ordained or otherwise. Coady has been promoting fraudulent marriages.

When Stone reports his findings to Inspector Simmons, he convinces the inspector not to press charges; Stone is convinced that Coady was naïve, not criminal. Even so, he is not prepared for Coady's reaction to finding out that she had been party to three bogus weddings. Coady is devastated, and to his surprise, Stone feels guilty about his part in the revelation.

When Coady decides she must visit each of the fraudulently married couples, Stone -- his role as a Mountie still a secret -- persuades her to let him accompany her, to protect her in case her confessions provoke violence.

This episode is the beginning of a charming romance between believable characters. Coady's desperately poor childhood has left deep scars…she is morbidly afraid of being penniless again…but she remains an essentially optimistic, resilient young woman.

Stone, on the other hand, comes from a stable, comfortably affluent background, but his service with the Mounties enables him to understand how Coady has struggled to get to her present position, tenuous though it is. He comes across as downright lovable, a quality that is surprisingly rare in romance heroes.

"Sweet" is not a word I use often in describing romances…I dislike its namby-pamby connotations…but that is just what this romance is: a nice straight-forward and -- yes -- sweet romance that kept me smiling. Stone and Coady were both thoroughly likable people, and I was delighted with the progress of their romance. Taken altogether, Marriage By Design added up to highly satisfactory read.

--Nancy J. Silberstein


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