The Countess by Claire Delacroix
(Dell, $6.50, R) ISBN 0-440-23634-7
The Countess, the fourth book in Claire Delacroix’s The Bride Quest series, is the story of a noble Frenchwoman willing to risk everything in a foreign and savage country to give her children a chance at love that she was never offered.

Countess Eglantine de Crevy has just discovered that her second husband, Theobald de Mayneris, gambled away their money and estate prior to his death, leaving her and her children with very few options. Their estate had been granted to them by Eglantine’s brother Guillaume upon Eglantine and Theobald’s marriage several years before, and thus was not Theobald’s to gamble away. Worst of all, the man he lost the estate to is none other than Reynaud de Charmonte, an awful man and her daughter’s betrothed.

Eglantine had been forced to marry her first husband, Robert de Leyrossire, when she was 14 years old. Upon the birth of their daughter Jacqueline, Robert made a betrothal agreement with his good friend Reynaud. Eglantine objected, but Robert, 30 years her senior, was not interested in what she wanted. However, Eglantine was so unhappy with her arranged marriage that she silently vowed to break the agreement any way possible. She wanted her children to have choice in who they would marry, unlike herself.

Eglantine thought her second marriage was a love match, only to later discover that Theobald thought of her as merely a challenge to overcome. When their daughter Esmeraude was born, Theobald became overly protective and did everything within his power to undermine any relationship between mother and daughter. Thus, two-year-old Esmeraude views Eglantine as a stranger and someone to be feared.

The one thing Theobald left for his wife was an abandoned castle called Kinbeath located in the wilds of Scotland, a holding so worthless that he was unable to gamble it away. Eglantine, in an effort to protect Jacqueline from Reynaud and to avoid being a constant burden on Guillaume, flees with her daughters and many loyal servants to this "salvation," only to find a castle in a state of disrepair inhabited by Duncan MacLaren and his clan. Duncan must not only deal with a large group of French foreigners, but also unrest within his clan for his recent accession to chieftain. In fact, matters become more complicated when Duncan decides against violence when dealing with Eglantine and her group, in favor of marriage, which insures a permanent future for both of their people. The question is whether or not Duncan and Eglantine can learn to trust each other and move past their general stereotyping of one another's lives.

The Countess is a story with characters that the reader will likely find empathetic, thanks in part to Claire Delacroix’s description for the reasons behind each character’s actions. I enjoyed the visual picture she painted of the stark landscape in Scotland with the exception of the castle ruin, which was confusing and somewhat difficult to picture from the author’s descriptions.

While empathetic, Duncan and Eglantine’s behavior sometimes seemed implausible. I found Duncan too good to be true. He’s an enigmatic figure in that he is not only the clan chieftain, but also the clan bard; he’s not only a warrior, but also a gentleman who shows compassion and respect for women and children alike. This argument is also true for his language skills. It’s too convenient that he is the only person with the ability to communicate with both of these groups of people. This ability to play both sides is disappointing because Duncan can do no wrong.

Eglantine is also a woman of incongruity. She’s a sharp cookie who is able to adapt swiftly to the landscape and efficiently deal with a Scottish chieftain, yet she takes the constant verbal abuse spewed at her by her stepdaughter. Alienor is a bitter young woman who blames Eglantine for many of her own trials in life. Eglantine’s reason for allowing this ingrate into her new home in the first place is baffling, but to enable this girl’s continued selfishness went beyond annoying.

A bright spot among Eglantine and Duncan is their romantic relationship. There are sparks shooting between these two characters almost instantly, which adds to the moments of comedy and tenderness throughout the story. I enjoyed their private sparring, and would have enjoyed it even more if only certain misunderstandings could have been left out. With too many wrong assumptions and misunderstandings, the plot tends to lag at times and become tedious.

The Countess is a book with strong characterizations that tend to miss the mark. However, fans of Ms. Delacroix’s work will be looking for The Beauty, the soon-to-be-released fifth installment in The Bride Quest series.

--Kristy Hales

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