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The Accidental Bride
by Jane Feather
(Bantam, $6.50, PG-13) ISBN 0-553-57896-0
****
The second of Jane Feather's Bride Trilogy is notable for another memorable heroine who, thank heaven, refuses to succumb to the fate of so many romance heroines by becoming a pawn in someone else's game despite all appearances to the contrary.

Phoebe Carlton may be a little dizzy, but she's not stupid, as Cato, Marquis of Granville eventually learns. As the sister of Cato's deceased wife, Diana, and the best friend of his daughter, Olivia, Phoebe has been living under Granville's roof for years. It's appropriate that the widower in need of an heir should take this poor relation as his next wife. Keep it all in the family so to speak. A budding poet in a perpetual state of disarray, Phoebe would like nothing more than to be a true partner to the man she has loved for years. But it's 1645 and frankly, this just ain't done.

It's no rockets red glare for Cato and Phoebe on their wedding night. Indeed, the first weeks of their marriage are pure misery for the naturally sensual young woman who suspects, "there has just got to be more than this." So on the advice of her friend Portia (title character in Feather's The Hostage Bride) Phoebe gives in to her instincts, and in so doing finally begins to break through her husband's wall of indifference.

Cato is an unusual character as heroes go -- he's just not easy to warm up to. But the author allows him to slowly come to life through both Phoebe's eyes and through his own deepening affection for his unusual wife. His awakening to Phoebe as a person, also gives the reader a deeper look into the heart of a man who has outlived three wives and fathered three daughters and seems to, initially, not care a whit about any of them.

Cato is so caught up in the civil war that is engulfing England that there is little time to think of much else. As a member of Oliver Cromwell's inner circle, he must face the day-to-day dangers of a country in revolt, as well as the devious machinations of his adopted son. Brian Morse is the shifty-eyed child of Cato's first wife, a royalist spy who will stop at nothing to destroy Cato. With the King's army nearly destroyed, Brian takes it upon himself to wreak some havoc in the Granville household and use Phoebe as a pawn in his game.

But Phoebe is no weak-willed female, no matter how impressed she is by Brian's knowledge of courtly fashion. Circling around Phoebe like a snake waiting to strike, Brian is convinced she is the key to his destruction of Cato. An in all too many romances, he would have been correct. But the author refuses to let her character's natural tendencies to be swayed by plot machinations. So Brian lies in wait while Phoebe and Cato dance around each other, expressing themselves through passionate lovemaking and silly arguments that ably illustrate Phoebe's frustration and Cato's obliviousness.

I found myself easily swept up in Phoebe and Cato's unusual romance, but was troubled by one thing. The big kiss. There is none. You know, that toe-curling, take your breath away melding of lips that sets the stage for all the fun stuff that follows. Perhaps the author's failure to include such a simple intimacy in a novel filled with much more descriptive "action" was intended to illustrate the distance between Phoebe and Cato. Still, I missed it, and felt it kept me too distant from a hero it took me too long to get to know.

Phoebe, on the other hand, is a messy delight -- so down to earth as to, at times, resemble a slapstick comedian. Her terrifying fear of horses offers up a number of amusing sequences, as does her continual defiance of Cato's orders.

While perhaps not her best work, Feather fans should be satisfied.

--Ann McGuire


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