Honor's Bride by Gayle Wilson
(Harlequin, $4.99, PG) ISBN 0-373-29032-2
***
Without honor, there is nothing. So says the back cover of Honor's Bride, an unceasingly serious romance starring the most forthright hero and heroine in recent memory. Honor is the theme that pervades each and every page of Gayle Wilson's latest. I guess I've grown so used to heroes and heroines just taking what they want, that I was somewhat taken aback by a couple whose destiny is governed by more than their libidos.

Kit St. John is the son of a disappointed Lord. Nothing Kit does is ever good enough. So dear old dad ships him off to Wellington in his war against Napoleon. Michael Haviland's father feels much the same about his own son. But that is where the similarities end. Over the years Kit has become a respected officer. Michael is a cowardly drunk. Not even Michael's wife Judith can stop her husband from a reckless disregard that causes one man to be whipped within an inch of his life and, later, causes the unwanted death of dozens of men on the battlefield.

Judith is one of the few women traveling with an English regiment in Portugal. The marriage between Judith and Michael is not a love match. It came about as an honorable way to settle a debt between two old military men. Judith acts as nurse to the men who make up the regiment, including the handsome, trustworthy Kit St. John. In her heart she knows that she fell in love with him long ago, perhaps even the first night she saw him in a London ballroom and he looked past her with the disinterested eyes of a young ne'er do well. But that Kit is long gone. The Kit who has found a home in the Army realizes that his friendship with Mrs. Haviland can never be anything other than that…no matter that the bruises she receives at the hand of her husband anger him to distraction. There is no honor in coveting another man's wife.

But circumstances, of course, contrive to put Kit and Judith on a collision course with their feelings. Left to fend for themselves in enemy territory, Judith must care for the injured Kit in the best way she knows how. When they are finally rescued and the gossip begins, the two are finally forced to confront the feelings they have for one another.

I don't want to give too much of the plot away, but since this is a romance, there shouldn't be any doubt as to the ending.

Kit and Judith do make a good couple. They are extremely reserved in their words and deeds and this is in perfect sync with their notions of honor and their individual struggles to deal with what they believe to be less than honorable feelings. The reader is left with an admiration for the characters' behavior, but that same honor-bound devotion tends to keep the Judith and Kit at a distance. There are quiet glimpses into the collective hearts of this upstanding couple, but the veneer is too fine. The reader is never given the opportunity to strip off the finish and get a real good look at the surface.

Author Gayle Wilson is adept at placing her characters in realistic situations and, most importantly, allowing them to act in the proper manner of the day. In other words, a well-bred woman in 1811 should be shocked when an old woman wants to slather a wound with mold. She's fighting the mentality of the day, one where arms were cut off at the shoulder with frightening frequency. Wilson's character's don't take on modern attitudes or 20th century sensibilities just to move the plot along. Her characters belong in the times in which they are placed.

Honor's Bride is no lighthearted romance. But it did leave me questioning the concept of honor and its place in the modern world.

--Ann McGuire


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