The Elusive Flame

The Reluctant Suitor
by Kathleen Woodiwiss
(Morrow, $24.99, R) ISBN 0-06-018570-8
Those of us who were in our romance reading infancy in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s remember Kathleen Woodiwiss with affection. She was a “must read” with every book. The Reluctant Suitor brings back fond memories of her earlier works. If you enjoyed her then, I recommend this story with no hesitation. If you disliked her style then, you will probably not enjoy this as much.

The style I mention is one of descriptive prose with an accent on detail. It is one of well rounded characters, even down to the servants. It is one with lots of complications being thrown in the path of the happy ever after. And it is one of lustful looks and sexual interactions. Once I got used to the style again, I was hooked until the end.

Sixteen years ago, two old friends tried to sign a betrothal agreement between their children - 17-year-old Colton Wyndham and seven-year-old Adriana Sutton. Colton, young and on the verge of independence, absolutely refused to be told what to do. He left home rather than sign the agreement. His family signed it in his place, allowing him a three-month period of time for courtship before the betrothal became official. If after three months, he was determined not to marry, there would be no betrothal. He went off and joined the army, spending the next years advancing in the ranks in the fight to oust Napoleon.

Adriana, a mere snippet of a tomboy, grew into a beautiful young woman. As she grew she realized she thought of Colton in almost a “hero-worship” way. Hearing his rejection and some of the spiteful things he said, she was devastated by Colton’s rejection. (As Adriana was only seven, it is hard to imagine her devastated, yet this is how it was portrayed in the story.) In respect of their parents’ wishes and a good excuse to keep her distance, she continued to use the signed agreement as a means to keep suitors at bay. It is her hope that when he returns he will love her back.

It is now 1815, the war is over, and Adriana is being pursued by many, including an heir to a dukedom and a lowly miller’s apprentice. It is this miller’s apprentice who causes her the most consternation. Roger Elston has set his sights on Adriana. She has agreed to let him call, as she sympathizes with his plight - he was raised in an orphanage and is trying to better himself. She never realizes he actually thinks she will consent to marry him; she assumes he knows it is only friendship on her part.

When Colton returns without warning, recovering from a war wound, he and Adriana agree to abide by the agreement and try the three-month courtship clause. Adriana, completely overwhelmed by the man Colton has become, thinks to shield her heart and only participate until she knows what he will do. Colton, on the other hand, lusts heartily for Adriana, and soon realizes that it would only be his pride standing in the way of agreeing to make her his wife.

But as tends to happen in a Woodiwiss book, many situations block the path of true love. There is the villain Roger, the fortune-seeking former mistress, the uncertainty between the two of their own feelings and many other obstacles. I felt some impatience at the many different paths the plot takes to get us to the end, but the writing kept me in tune and engaged me so much in the outcome, the irritation went away.

Adriana is a strong heroine, who is genuinely intelligent and keeps her wits most of the time. She is true to her era, concerned about things she does not know about men, while maintaining her dignity. She is alternately embarrassed, intrigued and mortified, yet she is neither simpering nor a fool.

Colton is a rogue, but quickly realizes he has a rare gem. He keeps a tight control on his lustful thoughts, so much so that it leads Adriana to fear he does not want her. This is one of those slight annoyances, but again, does not lead to distraction due to the strength of the writing and the sense that this is what probably occurred in the Regency period.

One bright spot for me was that once they fell in love, Colton and Adriana stayed together, even with all the barriers and obstacles. They even worked together to discover how to solve problems and they never doubted their love for each other. How refreshing!

If you are a Woodiwiss fan, give The Reluctant Suitor a try. If you have never read her, this is a good place to start. You may find yourself looking on your bookshelves to re-read some of her older stories, too.

--Shirley Lyons

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