Not all reprints are better left unprinted, as An Unwilling Bride demonstrates. Thanks to an elegantly complicated setup, the plot of the story -- two people forced to marry by the machinations of another -- moves along purposefully and quickly engrosses the reader.
The Duke of Belcraven and his beloved wife have been estranged for years, since the birth of her son as a result of a one-night affair. Due to tragic circumstances, the boy, Lucien, is now the heir to the Belcraven title and fortune. While the duke has accepted Lucien as his son, a painful bitterness lingers between him and his still-beloved wife, creating a wall that neither knows how to breach.
One day a messenger arrives. It seems that the dukeís own brief love affair, embarked upon after his wifeís betrayal, resulted in a daughter. The girl is now grown and teaching at a school for young ladies. And the duke, wishing to preserve his bloodline, devises a plan. Lucien will marry Elizabeth, or be disinherited.
The news that he is not only illegitimate but is about to be forced into marriage comes as no small shock to Lucien. His reputation as a reprobate notwithstanding, he had been considering marriage to a society miss. After all, he has Blanche, his actress mistress and friend. Ah well, one woman will do as well as another for a wife. Lucien and the duke embark, separately, to meet Elizabeth.
Miss Beth Armitage is in for a similar shock. The news that the nobleman sitting in the parlor is not only her father but has every intention of forcing her to marry his wifeís son is almost too much to bear. Beth reluctantly agrees to meet Lucien, with a plan to scare him off. Alas, that backfires, and they come to an understanding. They will marry, and do their best to be civil to each other.
Of course, itís not long before they are drawn to each other in ways neither expected. Lucien is first to fall, and he does his best to treat Beth in a way that will make her fall in love with him. Beth, for her part, stubbornly clings to her vow not to care for this man (perhaps clings a bit too long - this dragged on). Blanche, who turns out to be more than the average mistress, is instrumental in resolving the plot, which involves a villainous kidnapping by a depraved nobleman hunting for a fortune. All three are generally witty and sympathetic.
The plot flounders a bit at the end, and this is perhaps due to the large secondary cast of characters who probably all have their own books by now. Secondary characters can only hang around a book so long before they need to be occupied somehow, and here they are occupied with the villain. This is all well and good, but it felt like it bloated the novel and detracted from the main story. In fact, I thought Iíd reached the ending, only to find the book went on for another eighty pages.
Now, not having read this book in its original form, I have no way of knowing whether this was all part of the original or was written in as part of the reprint. But it just didnít seem to fit, as though the villain had bee written in to occupy the secondary cast and now had to be dealt with before the novelís close. The romance was strong enough without it.
At any rate, the first four-fifths of An Unwilling Bride is delightful, and historical romance readers who havenít sampled Jo Beverleyís work would do well to pick this one up.