The Gamble by Laura Parker
(Zebra, $5.99, PG) ISBN 0-8217-5863-2
Jack Laughton, the new Viscount Darlington, is living an empty life in mid-18th century England. In a world of gamblers and hedonists, he is notable for the number of games he plays, the money he loses and the innumerable women he seduces. In truth, he cares for nothing and nobody, not even himself.

Sabrina Lyndsay is an heiress by fraud. Her guardian managed to get her father's second, handfast marriage declared void, in order to bastardize Sabrina's beloved half-brother, Kit, and deprive him of the majority share of the Lyndsay fortune. The guardian plans to tighten his control on Sabrina's fortune by marrying her off to the louse-ridden man of his choice. Sabrina vows to thwart his plans and to rescue Kit, held a prisoner in Scotland.

Sabrina and Jack first cross paths when Jack, masquerading as the highwayman Black Jack Law, holds up Sabrina's coach. Sabrina, who doesn't let her guardian browbeat her, isn't about to let a mere highwayman confound her. When he kisses her, Sabrina manages, despite wobbly knees and swimming senses, to steal his gun. And shoot him with it. Jack is not pleased.

Displeasure changes when Jack finds Sabrina in Bath. When she asks him to teach her to gamble, so she can win enough money to rescue Kit, she gives him the opportunity to ruin her, avenging the slight she did him by shooting him. Of course, nothing goes according to plan for either of them.

Normally, while I'm reading a novel, I'm almost subliminally aware of traveling the path from beginning to end. And when I close the book, I have a strong sense of where I've been and what it meant. The Gamble was not a normal experience.

While I was reading, I didn't know where we were going (except toward the happy ending, which is a given in a romance) or why. As far as I could tell, Jack had no feelings toward Sabrina except as fresh prey, while Sabrina never seemed particularly taken with Jack. This lack of sexual or emotional tension made the romance only mildly interesting. If this had been a mystery or a straight historical novel, I expect I wouldn't mind. Presumably, the mystery or the historical events at the center of the novel would have engaged my interest, while the dialogue and prose almost effortlessly evoked the 18th century. However, a romance novel without an interesting romance at its center is a romance novel I cannot even call acceptable.

--Katy Cooper

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