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The Unexpected Wife
by Emily Hendrickson
(Signet, $4.99, G) ISBN 0-451-19498-5
***
I wanted to like Emily Hendrickson's latest Regency a whole lot. It had an interesting plot, an admirable heroine, and a nice view of village social life during the Regency era. But when I finished, I had to conclude that I only liked it a little.

Perhaps I am getting too fussy in my old age, but I want plots that fit together and I want to feel that the characters' behavior makes sense. I did not always get what I want in The Unexpected Wife.

To demonstrate why I was less than wholly satisfied, let's begin by describing the plot. Juliet Winterton, daughter of Viscount Winterton, is forced to flee her home because her step-brother Marius is about to force her to marry his unpleasant friend, Lord Taunton. (Actually, although denoted throughout as Juliet's step-brother, he is in fact her half brother, since they have the same father.) Marius believes he can order his sister's life because their father, on a mission for the government to Russia, has not been heard of in years. Marius concludes that his father is dead and that Juliet must do as he says. Juliet, with no one to turn to, flees with her maid to escape marriage to a gambler and a wastrel.

Here we have my first problem with the plot. That a genteel girl, daughter of a viscount, would be so unprotected and alone that she could be forced into marriage is unlikely. That Marius could act unilaterally to declare himself viscount and guardian is unclear. That nothing could be found out about a nobleman who was sent on a government mission in peacetime is improbable. And that the viscount simply wouldn't bother to write (or to contact his superiors) for several years, well, it doesn't work for me.

Juliet, having cleverly absconded with a nice bit of money and having left a trail that no one could follow, finds herself stranded in the village in Wiltshire. She overhears a conversation in an inn about what a shame it is that Viscount Hawkswood never comes to nearby Hawkswood Manor. The answer to her dilemma is now before her! She introduces herself to the speakers as Viscountess Hawkswood, come to rusticate at the manor, without her husband. Her claim is accepted without question and she is escorted to the manor where the housekeeper likewise welcomes the viscountess with open arms. Juliet sets about making herself at home at Hawkswood Manor and in the neighborhood.

OK, unlikely but central to the plot; I'll suspend disbelief.

In the meantime, Alexander, Viscount Hawkswood is in a pretty pickle. He is being pursued in an outrageous fashion by a young miss who is determined to become his wife by fair means or foul. Forced to leave town, he remembers that manor he never visits and assumes he can go to ground there. (I really wonder if a respected member of the ton would have felt the need to run quite so far to escape being forced into Matrimony.)

Imagine Alexander's surprise when he arrives at the manor to discover that his "wife" is already in residence, has been for several weeks, and has been accepted by the local gentry as a wronged wife forced to separate from a profligate and unsatisfactory spouse.

When Juliet tells Alexander her sad tale, he immediately agrees to keep up the masquerade, perhaps with some idea that it will protect him from the predatory female that he fears is even now on his tracks. And here is where I started having trouble. I know that for the sake of the story, Alexander had to agree to play along, but it never made any sense to me why he agreed.

Was he so taken with the attractive and forthright Juliet that he consented to play at marriage even though he must have known what the end result would be? This is never made very clear to me. That Juliet who had never been to town or much in society might have thought they could get away with this I could accept. But not Alexander.

The masquerade is made more difficult by the arrival of Marius and Juliet's one time suitor. (Is it too much of a coincidence that Lord Taunton was heir of one of the neighbors who conveniently died?) Marius doubts that the marriage is real, and Alexander is all too willing to convince him. Are his thrilling kisses simply playacting, Juliet wonders?

Next, Alexander's determined pursuer arrives on the scene. She too questions the reality of the marriage, but the pair's "acting" finally convinces her to leave. Then Alexander's formidable grandmother arrives. And finally, guess who turns up from Russia?

Through all this, Juliet sticks to her determination not to marry Alexander in fact (although the whole world thinks they are married.) After all, she doesn't want to trap him into marriage. But she'd be delighted to marry him if he loved her. And Alexander? Well, his attitude towards marriage definitely changes as he gets to know Juliet.

Disappointment. This sums up my response to The Unexpected Wife. I rather expected a lighthearted tale when I read the synopsis, but it was not to be. On the other hand, the story lacked any real emotional intensity. It was pleasant enough, but no more. As I said in the introduction, I liked it a little: enough to rate it acceptable. But I didn't like it a lot.

--Jean Mason


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