A Christmas Bride by Mary Balogh
(Signet, $4.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-451-19144-7
*****
The romance genre (and literature in general) is full of tortured heroes, men whose past experiences or past actions have left them psychologically wounded, full of self-reproach and unable to achieve real happiness or true intimacy. Much rarer is the tortured heroine. Oh, there are plenty of "tormented" heroines, women who have been mistreated by family, husbands or lovers. But a truly tortured heroine, whose own behavior has left her guilt ridden and miserable is much less likely to be found in the pages of a romance novel.

Well, with her usual impressive skill, Mary Balogh has created such a heroine. Lady Helena Stapleton has lived with overwhelming guilt for thirteen years. After her elderly husband's death ten years earlier, Helena had first hidden herself away with relatives in Scotland. But this self-punishment did not help, so for the past six years she has traveled restlessly from place to place, seeking oblivion in pleasure, always skirting but never crossing the boundaries of respectability.

Helena cannot love for she fears that she will bring nothing but unhappiness to those she loves. She has suppressed her own sexuality and has rejected desire. Then one evening, she sees a handsome stranger across a London drawing room and all her inhibitions seem to melt away.

Edgar Downes has come to London to seek a genteel wife. At thirty-six, it is time for him to find a woman to provide the children to inherit the fortune he and his father have amassed and to become the heirs to their impressive country home, Mobley Abby. But although he was educated at the best schools and though his sister Cora has married into the ton, Edgar knows that the only thing that makes him an acceptable suitor of a young woman of birth and family is his fortune. He is undeniably a cit.

But Edgar has promised his aging father that he will bring home a suitable bride by Christmas, and his sister and her friends are quite happy to play matchmaker. However the young debutantes pale before the mature beauty and sparking intelligence of Helena and the passion she ignites in him.

Circumstances force an unwilling Helena to become Edgar's Christmas bride. But if they are to have any chance for a happy marriage, Edgar must help Helena to lay to rest the ghosts of the past and by gaining the forgiveness of the one she hurt, forgive herself. Only then can the once loving and happy woman who has been hidden for years emerge from the shadows of her guilt.

This is a powerful and moving book. Avid Balogh fans (like yours truly) will recognize Helena's identity immediately and will wonder how she can possibly be a heroine. But our dislike changes to pity and then to admiration. It is a testament to Balogh's skill that that the reader comes to identify with Helena and to root for her.

Edgar is a marvelous hero. Intelligent, self-confident, self-aware, handsome, and kind, his position as an outsider allows him to see behind Helena's facade and to recognize the wounded soul she is. His experience as a man of action allows him to take the risks that bring a happy ending not only for Helena, but also for the person she hurt so badly.

I believe that this book can readily be appreciated by those who have not yet had the pleasure of discovering the genius of Mary Balogh. But I suggest that the story will be even more meaningful if read in conjunction with two earlier books: A Precious Jewel and The Famous Heroine. Nobody does Regency better than Mary Balogh and she has rarely written a better book than A Christmas Bride.

--Jean Mason


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