The Wedding Gamble
by Julia Justiss
(Harlequin Hist. 464, $4.99, R) ISBN 0-373-29064-0
****
The author blurb in the front of The Wedding Gamble identifies Julia Justiss as the winner of RWA's Golden Heart Award for Regency in 1997. Since this is her first published book, I can only assume that this manuscript won the prize. If such is the case, then the judges showed extremely good taste. The Wedding Gamble is a well written and well plotted novel with well drawn characters, both primary and secondary. It doesn't read like a first book but rather like the work of a seasoned author.

The Wedding Gamble is a marriage of convenience story. The hero, Nicholas Stanhope, Marquess of Englemere is a widower. Most people think that he is still mourning his wife, Lydia, and for that reason has not sought a new bride. In fact, Lydia betrayed Nicholas and he would happily remain single. Then, his younger brother tragically drowns and Nicholas must seek a new wife for the sake of the succession.

On the eve of his betrothal ball to the beauteous Clarissa Beaumont, Nicholas is subjected to his fiancee's raging temper for the first time. Her friend, Sarah Wallingford, who is a guest of the Beaumonts, seeks to smooth over the situation with her calm good sense. Nicholas soon realizes that Miss Wallingford is the competent voice of reason in the Beaumont household. He is intrigued by this woman who is the antithesis of the high strung Clarissa.

Nicholas soon discovers that Sarah has come to London to snare a wealthy husband. Her gambler father had left the family deeply in debt and, unless she can find a man willing to pay off the nearly 10,000 mortgage on the family estate, the family will lose its home. Unfortunately, Sarah has caught the attention of the unsavory but very wealthy Sir James Findley. Findley has already reputedly driven two wives to suicide and Sarah is well aware of his sadistic proclivities. But she is willing to sacrifice herself for her family's sake.

When another flight of temper leads Clarissa to break off their engagement, Nicholas concludes that Sarah would make him the perfect wife. And so he offers her a marriage of convenience. He doesn't want passion and romantic love in his second marriage. He wants the friendship and respect he feels for Sarah. She, of course, gratefully accepts.

One of the things I like about this book is that there is no sudden and swift recognition that the hero and heroine have found true love after all. There are numerous problems that the two have to work through. There is Nicholas' beautiful mistress who would dearly love to continue the connection and for whom Nicholas feels a certain loyalty. There is the neighbor Sarah loved but could not marry because of their families' financial woes. He arrives too late to prevent the marriage but clearly still loves his childhood sweetheart. Nor is Sinjin a cipher, but rather a real potential threat to the marriage. And lurking in the background there is the evil Sir James who, balked of his prey, is more than willing to cause problems for the newlyweds.

Sarah is a most admirable heroine. She is intelligent, capable, loyal and, above all, honorable. Whatever her feelings for her lost love, she will be a good and faithful wife. That she responds so passionately to her husband is the first indication that her feelings for him run deeper than mere gratitude, liking and respect. Nicholas at first glance might seem to be the prototypical "done wrong, don't trust women" hero, but, in fact, he comes to value his new wife very quickly and fights against his all too predictable tendency to distrust her because of his first wife's betrayal.

There are elements of the dreaded "big misunderstanding" plot in The Wedding Gamble, but given the manner in which Nicholas and Sarah entered into matrimony and given their backgrounds and expectations, the fact that each misunderstood the feelings and actions of the other appears to be realistic rather than arising from the author's need to sustain the conflict.

Justiss does a very good job with the Regency setting, but I did find her reference to the ton as "the upper ten thousand" a bit jarring. The ending may have been a wee bit melodramatic, but given Sarah's personality, I could even understand her actions, however foolhardy they may appear to have been.

The Wedding Gamble is a most auspicious debut novel. Justiss is a talented writer and I shall look forward to her future books. Perhaps someday she'll add a Rita to her Golden Heart.

--Jean Mason


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