The Earl’s Untouched Bride
by Annie Burrows
(Harlequin, $5.99, PG-13)  ISBN 0373-29533-2
The subtitle on this story set in France and England during Bonaparte’s exile says “a convenient arrangement”.  But The Earl’s Untouched Bride is far more inconvenient and the arrangement is definitely one that should have been cancelled.

Charles Fawley, the Earl of Walton has traveled to France to get away from a family that he despises.  He has recently discovered that he has a brother just a few years younger than he. It seems that when his father died, his mother’s family kicked the stepmother, who really showed him love and affection, out of the house. (I guess they could do this because Charles was the heir, but this is not really explained). She was pregnant and died giving birth. Charles was raised by these people who rarely showed affection. And the half brother, Robert, has grown up hating him for his role in his mother’s death. Not only did Charles recently discover the existence of this brother, but also that Robert had been horribly injured and disfigured while fighting in France.  He brought him to his home in London and then left Robert to settle in and reconcile himself to his new life.  The why of all this is not well-explained.

To get away, Charles decides to go to France, where he meets Felice Bergeron.  He decides to offer for her, but the night before the engagement is to be announced; she elopes with a poor tradesman whom she has loved for a few years. To avoid the scandal and salvage his pride, he agrees to wed her sister Heloise. Heloise has been the chaperone and has always been in the background. But she goes to Charles and appeals to him to marry her  - first as a way to help him maintain his standing in society and more importantly to her, to thwart her father’s attempt to marry her off to a man who is known as a libertine and killer of men in duels; a man that Charles abhors.

They marry and flee to England where Charles tells Heloise that basically she will be allowed free rein as long as she brings no scandal on their heads.  Charles hopes to live a normal life.  Heloise interprets that literally and is heartbroken that Charles will not even give their marriage a chance.  Charles, on the other hand, assumed that Heloise was not marrying him for love and would appreciate his demeanor and willingness to give her time to adjust to him before exercising his rights in order for her to bear him an heir. Thus begins their life of misunderstanding after misunderstanding. 

I don’t mind allowing couples to have some miscommunication and even a misunderstanding or two on their way to love. But these two are always at odds. They spend the first two thirds of the book misinterpreting each other and worse, acting on those misunderstandings. Heloise hopes to help Robert because she thinks that is what Charles wants. But Charles finds himself getting jealous, so acts like an ass by turning away from her whenever Heloise makes headway. This reinforces her belief that he only wants her to be a minor player in his life and that he resents her animation or her showing of affection. And the cycle goes on and on and on.

To top it off, Charles is a pompous noble much of the time.  He would lament that Heloise is not impressed by his wealth and his efforts at impressing her while at the same time finding it admirable that she is so unlike her sister, who cried over the things he could give her.  Heloise on the other hand, is just silly. She is constantly going places she should not have gone (like gambling hells and Vauxhall Gardens at night) and then whining that things turned out so wrong, only to put herself in an equally unsavory situation again.  She is either not very smart or just insipid. Neither is endearing.

I struggled through this story and still have a hard time understanding the motivations of these people. And yet, I really liked Robert and his ability to finally pull himself together.  He might make an interesting hero. The sexual tension between Heloise and Charles is well written and once past their initial mishaps is a strong point in their relationship.  Sadly, it is not enough to redeem The Earl’s Untouched Bride

--Shirley Lyons

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