The Best Intentions

The Bride Sale

Miss Lacey's Last Fling

Once a Dreamer

Once a Scoundrel

Once a Gentleman by Candice Hern
(Avon, 5.99, PG) ISBN 0-06-056514-4
This book had a good beginning and a satisfying ending separated by an uninspired middle. It was rather like traveling from one lovely destination to another, but dozing off on the journey because the scenery wasn’t terrible interesting.

Prudence Armitage has known Nicholas Parrish for four years. In 1802, they both work on a magazine called The Ladies’ Fashionable Cabinet that hides Republican sympathies behind fashion plates. The 27-year-old Pru is “small and plain and shy” with no marriage prospects. She is content to adore Nick from afar, and he considers her “a good friend and a good sport.”

Pru is editing the magazine temporarily while the true editor is away. She’s very good at it, but her dedication leads her to fall asleep at her desk one night.

Unfortunately, the magazine offices are on the ground floor of Nick’s townhouse. When Pru’s father and brothers arrive on the doorstep the following morning, and both Pru and Nick appear looking like they’ve had a rough night, Pru’s family demands that her honor be restored. Over Pru’s strenuous objections, Nick offers marriage and Pru’s father accepts.

At first, it appears that a charming romance will result from such an inauspicious beginning. For the first time, Nick really takes notice of Pru. One of the things he sees is that her family belittles her and takes her for granted. Worse, they openly commiserate with handsome Nick on his bad luck in being trapped by such a lackluster specimen of femininity. This unfair treatment makes Nick both indignant and protective. Publicly he declares that theirs is a love match and acts the part of the smitten bridegroom.

Privately, Nick resolves that he will give the shy, reserved Pru as much time as she needs to be ‘ready’ before he initiates a physical relationship.

The resulting story has the right kind of tension to keep me interested – two characters who desire each other but have good reasons for hesitating to act on that desire – but Ms. Hern fails to capitalize on it.

Since Nick knows that he doesn’t want a marriage of convenience, he has the perfect opportunity to seduce his wife. Unfortunately, rather than seducing her, Nick adopts a strictly hand-off policy that lasts until he can’t stand it any longer and jumps her.

Pru is extremely skittish, even when she decides to take action. “How the devil was she ever to let her husband know she was ready if she couldn’t even manage to flirt properly?” She can’t make herself say something straightforward like ‘Honey, I’m ready’ even after Nick reveals that he wants a physical relationship. But Pru’s idea of flirting is to affect a “seductive” walk that makes Nick think she’s hurt, bat her eyes in such a way that he thinks she’s hurt, and actually poke herself in the eye trying to speak the language of the fans. It’s always disappointing when authors make otherwise intelligent heroines look ridiculous in an attempt to be humorous.

Sadly, what really grabs Nick’s attention is when Pru starts to dress attractively. He begins to realize that he might have deeper feelings when she shows some cleavage and becomes desirable to other men. This might be a realistic depiction of men, the visual little dears, but I found it a bit of a letdown. I was delighted when Nick was clever enough to appreciate Pru when she was an unconventional ugly duckling – turning her into the usual swan didn’t improve the story.

These characters also needed to get out of their own heads a bit. Pru secretly wants Nick to take the initiative but he’s busy being ‘understanding.’ What we see are two self-absorbed people spending so much time worrying about themselves that each ignores a plethora of important signals from the other. It starts out romantic, but it gets frustrating.

In the end, Ms. Hern redeems her characters and herself with a rewarding conclusion, but the book would have been more satisfying if the characters had discovered the truth about each other more gradually rather than in a belated rush. If getting there is half the fun, then I’d have to say that half the fun was missing from this trip.

-- Judi McKee

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