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Miss Treadwell's Talent

A Worthy Wife by Barbara Metzger
(Signet, $4.99, PG) ISBN 0-451-19961-8
Fans of Barbara Metzger will probably enjoy A Worthy Wife, her twenty-fifth book. It contains her patented humor in abundance. What it doesn’t contain is an abundance of romance. In fact, the hero and heroine spend so little time together that one wonders how and why they managed to fall in love with each other.

The story begins with a bang. Miss Aurora Halle McPhee is in the process of marrying the dashing and handsome Lieutenant Harland Podell. Aurora can’t believe her good luck. She’s not completely sure why Harland fell in love with the penniless adopted daughter of two eccentric naturalists, but it’s a dream come true. The dream turns into a nightmare when, at that nerve wracking moment in the service -- “If anyone here knows just cause why, etc.” -- a stranger shouts, “I’ll speak, by God.”

In the pandemonium that follows, Aurora loses her breakfast as it turns out that Harland already has not one, but at least two “wives.” When Aurora plaintively whimpers, “But I need a husband,” the stranger steps into the breech and offers himself to the distressed young woman.

Kenyon Warriner, Earl of Windham, had rushed to Bath to find the man who had “married” his sister Brianne, spent her dowry, and then faked his death in battle. Now, assuming that Podell had seduced Aurora, he offers to marry her to save her from disgrace. The wedding follows quickly, and that night, Kenyon discovers that his assumption had been wrong. He believes that Aurora had tricked him. Aurora is understandably angry and informs Kenyon that the marriage will be in name only until Kenyon realizes that she is worthy to be his wife.

Aurora’s way of demonstrating her worthiness is not completely satisfactory. She rescues waifs and broken down horses and unemployed soldiers and just about anyone else who has a sad story to tell. In short, Aurora turns Kenyon’s life upside down. There is also a mystery to be solved. Why would the fortune-hunting Harland Podell take up with a supposedly impoverished Aurora McPhee? Since Aurora was born in India, a quest for her origins leads them to the marvelously improbable Lady Anstruther-Jones who adds a monkey to the mix.

Kenyon certainly wants a real marriage, but he has to leave the country to bring his wounded brother back to England. So Aurora heads off to the family home in Derby, to deal with his crumbling home, his dotty aunt, his depressed and annoying sister, his neglected estate, his neglected son -- which she, of course, does with remarkable success. Kenyon returns briefly and it looks like things will work out, but he is summoned to London on the king’s business. Then Kenyon returns again, but even more problems arise.

There are lots of humorous moments, with monkeys chasing dogs and cats chasing dogs and dogs chasing cats. But what there isn’t much of is any development of a relationship between Aurora and Kenyon. Well, how can there be, with so much going on? Aurora and Kenyon come across as fairly stock Regency characters, she the surprisingly capable if impetuous woman, he the man who, betrayed by his first wife, wants a restful wife but gets something very different. What I never quite understood was how or when they fall in love. Certainly, Kenyon lusts after his wife from the start, but when and why does Aurora decide she loves Kenyon? Does absence make the heart grow fond?

I have frequently enjoyed Metzger’s Regencies because of her quirky characters and her sense of the ridiculous. But despite the fact that A Worthy Wife has some funny moments, it didn’t quite work for me. Too much stuff going on; too little romance.

--Jean Mason

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