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Beholden by Bronwyn Williams
(Topaz, $5.99, PG) ISBN 0-451-40749-0
Why didn't this book quite work for me? That is the question that always faces a reviewer (or a reader, for that matter). What is it that keeps me from recommending it? Sometimes the answer to this question is quite apparent; other times it's shrouded in mystery. This is one of those latter times.

Beholden has many things going for it: a well drawn setting, a sympathetic heroine, an lively cast of secondary characters, an interesting premise. Wait! I think I just noticed my difficulties with the book I never quite got a handle on the hero. He didn't catch my imagination, didn't come alive for me. And I guess we all know that a compelling hero is the most important requirement of a good romance novel.

Galen McKnight could have been a great hero. We first met him in Williams Entwined. He was the hero's brother feared lost at sea but turning up at the end. He had lost his ship and almost lost his life. Indeed, he had been saved by the heroic action of an Irish fisherman, Declan O'Sullivan. But in saving Galen, Declan had lost his own life.

When Beholden opens it is about two years later. Galen had decided to give up the sea. When he won 51% interest in a gambling boat in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, he decided to stay on and run his new acquisition. This brought him into constant conflict with the minority owner, Aster Tyler. But the project is prospering and Galen seems on his way to his goal to establish a boatyard where he can design and build boats. His placid existence is disturbed when he receives a letter from his brother informing him that Brandon is sending him two ladies. Galen can not imagine what he is talking about.

The two ladies are Kathleen (Katy) and Tara O'Sullivan. Galen had sent his savior's family almost all his savings (one reason why he can't open his boatyard immediately.) When the money arrived in the impoverished west Ireland village, Tara, the youngest at "almost thirteen", convinced her older sister that Galen meant the two to come to America. Tara, gifted with the sight, predicts a lovely ship with green tablecloths and gold aplenty. Katy and Tara travel at first to Connecticut, where they discover the "wrong" Mr. McKnight. Now they find themselves on a train headed south to the "right" Mr. McKnight.

Katy O'Sullivan is a lovely lass. Her black hair, fair skin, and green eyes make a striking combination that even her poor clothes cannot dim. She has traveled 5000 miles with a carpetbag, a young sister, and a trunk full of books. She is determined to make her own way in this frightening new world. But for now, she is dependent on Galen.

Galen takes her aboard his gambling boat and the fun begins. Except, quite often Galen acts more or less like a wuss, in my humble opinion. He wants Katy, but he thinks he is too old. He lets her take a job with his rival, but keeps hanging around. He kisses her passionately and she responds passionately, but then he backs off because he's not sure what he really feels. He lets Aster drive Katy and Tara off his boat, though I'm not sure why. He looks across longingly at her but doesn't seem to want to act. But he doesn't seem to be a tortured hero, merely a confused one. And the way their relationship is finally "resolved," seemed somehow artificial to me.

So, I fear I must conclude that Beholden, while an acceptable romance, is not a book I can recommend. It doesn't have that special something (like a hero to remember) that sets a book apart. I'm a bit disappointed because I really enjoyed Entwined and was intrigued by the excerpt in the back of that book. But Beholden didn't work for me.

--Jean Mason

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