Great Caesar's Ghost

A Willing Spirit

 
A Husband by Law by Cynthia Sterling
(Jove, $5.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-515-13028-1
****
Every so often, I read a book that I enjoy and want to recommend even though I recognize its flaws. Cynthia Sterling's A Husband by Law is such a book. Its appealing romance and strong secondary characters offset its one plotting deficiency.

Michael Trent is a lieutenant in the First Dragoons, stationed in San Antonio. President Polk's annexation of Texas six months' earlier, in December 1845, has resulted in a threat of war with Mexico. As the First Dragoons prepare to march to California - a move that will result in the addition of California to the United States - Lieutenant Trent is occupying a guardhouse cell, wearing leg irons and a twelve pound iron ball.

Twenty-six-year-old Michael has a temper that ignites a tad too quickly. This time his incarceration is the result of his rough intervention into a wife beating. His commanding officer thinks he has a remedy for Michael's impetuosity: marriage. Colonel Peabody is even ready to provide a wife for Michael in the person of Miss Ellen Winthrop.

Ellen, the illegitimate daughter of the Earl of Lanesmore, wants to go to California to join her uncle. Because of the impending war, the only way she can do so is to travel with the Army, and the only way she can travel with the Army is as the wife of a soldier. Colonel Peabody, impressed with Ellen's air of breeding and unaware of her illegitimacy, believes it would be improper to marry her to an enlisted man. Michael is - despite his present difficulties - West Point graduate, an officer and a gentleman, and the only acceptable candidate for Ellen's hand.

When the colonel tells Michael that his alternatives are marriage to Ellen or a court martial, Michael agrees to the marriage. Ellen has even less choice in the matter. She has no one to turn to except the uncle she has not seen in years and no other way of getting to California. She agrees to a marriage in name only, to be terminated as soon as she is reunited with her uncle.

Michael and Ellen are married hours after they are introduced and then must share a tent with a total stranger…an attractive stranger. Both Michael and Ellen like what they see in their new spouse. Besides her physical attractiveness, Ellen's training as a maid and a seamstress provides her with skills that prove useful to an Army wife. Furthermore, as the First Dragoons travel through the desolate countryside that is now Arizona and New Mexico, Michael is impressed by how admirably - and believably - Ellen copes with the hazards she encounters.

For her part, Ellen realizes from the first that Michael is a gentleman, a truth he himself finds difficult to believe. He grew up poor on the streets of San Antonio, and he believes that the scorn and shunning he experienced as a child were deserved. The same experiences that resulted in his feelings of inferiority have resulted in a chivalrous impulse that manifests itself when he encounters bullying.

Cynthia Sterling has given us a romance that proceeds in a direct and natural manner, with most of the obstacles encountered coming from the rough environment in which it takes place. Unfortunately, the only obstacle that is not external is annoyingly persistent. Ellen feels unworthy of Michael because she is illegitimate; Michael feels unworthy of Ellen because he grew up on the streets. For pages and pages, despite their growing closeness, both fret over their humble origins. My interest in this part of the plot dwindled away long before the lovers 'fessed up.

Counteracting all this shilly-shallying is a fully developed cast of secondary characters. There is Michael's closest friend, the Army doctor, Solly Sullivan; there is tough, experienced Katherine Shea who takes Ellen under her wing; and - last but perhaps best - there is Bobby, Ellen's Scots terrier who rides west standing on her horse's neck. The crude Captain Dunleavy makes a convincing villain, one who brings authentic menace to the story. Even the setting, the Spanish southwest, helps to compensate for two lovers busy making mountains out of the same molehill.

When I weighed the sole flaw in the plot against a genuinely likeable pair of lovers, surrounded by an original and interesting supporting cast, the elements I liked in A Husband by Law tipped the scale in the direction of my four-heart rating. On balance, the good stuff out-weighed the bad stuff.

--Nancy J. Silberstein


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