The Officer’s Bride
by Merline Lovelace, Deborah Simmons, & Julia Justiss
(Harlequin, $6.50, PG-13) ISBN 0-373-83465-9
****
Anthologies are best when they have some kind of uniting thread that makes sense and draws the reader into the book. The authors of this recent collection of tales have found such a device: all of the heroes are members of the same military unit, Dunbar’s Dragoons. However, each of the romances has a very different character. In one, a returning soldier must win the love of the wife he married hurriedly before marching off to war. In the second, a veteran, wounded both in body and spirit, finds healing thanks to the determination of his female “companion.” In the third, a soldier must convince the widow of his best friend that their marriage will be very different from her previous experiences. All of these love stories come alive at the talented hands of three of Harlequin’s best historical authors.

Merline Lovelace’s story, “The Major’s Wife” opens the book, although it is last chronologically. Before he left to fight in the Crimea, Major Sir Charles Trent had quickly married the young and innocent Marianne. His reasons had been pragmatic; he hoped to sire an heir and thus preserve the Trent name in case he did not survive the fighting. Marianne had indeed conceived, but she had lost the child. Now Charles, having survived the horrors of the “Charge of the Light Brigade,” has come home. His years away have convinced him that he loves and needs his wife but he believes that Marianne must now have a proper wooing to make up for the unromantic nature of their marriage.

Marianne has grown and changed in the three years since her husband left. She has overcome the loss of her own child by becoming involved in saving other children from the horrible exploitation that is so often their lot. She loves her husband and has from the start, but she believes that she must let him go because she fears that she cannot grant him his fondest wish - an heir.

Charles’ experiences have caused him to reevaluate his priorities but he must convince Marianne of this fact. He must also come to terms with the woman his wife has become in his absence. Lovelace succeeds admirably in portraying the challenges that a couple must face in adjusting to marriage when the husband returns from war.

“The Companion” takes the reader back to the time immediately after the victory at Waterloo. Deborah Simmons offers a story of a man who suffers from what we now call “survivor’s guilt” and the woman who forces him to begin to live again.

Christopher Hawthorne has survived the Peninsular War and the horrors of Waterloo, but not unscathed. He is scarred and partially crippled physically. But more damaging are the psychological wounds. Not only had he seen many of his comrades fall, but his older brother had died unexpectedly, leaving him with the unwanted title and position of Earl of Hawthorne. He has withdrawn from society and refuses to take any interest in the duties of his new position. Nothing his determined grandmother has done has shaken him out of his lethargy. But the indomitable Dowager Countess refuses to give up. When she learns that a distant relation has been left homeless, she decides that Miss Chloe Gibbons might be just the person to help her grandson.

Chloe had cared for her ailing father with unfailing devotion. She is grateful that the Dowager Countess has offered her a position as companion since her father’s estate was entailed. She is somewhat shocked to discover that she is to be the companion not to the countess but to the earl. Kit is immediately suspicious of his grandmother’s machinations, but ultimately cannot withstand the determination and kindness of this young woman who has also lost much but who insists on the value of life.

In “An Honest Bargain,” Julia Justiss takes us back to the Peninsula after the Battle of Talevara. Lieutenant Bryan Langford of Dunbar’s Dragoons discovers that his childhood friend, Jeremy Saybrook of the 95th was killed in the battle. Bryan goes to the funeral, both as a sign of respect and to comfort Jeremy’s widow, Audra. Bryan has loved Audra for years, but she chose to wed their more dashing friend.

Bryan discovers that Audra’s situation is desperate. Her husband died deeply in debt and at least one of his creditors has suggested how the widow might repay what is owed. Bryan sees no other way to help his friend than to offer her marriage. But Audra will agree to a marriage in name only and a swift annulment when the army returns to Lisbon. Her life with Jeremy has soured her on the wedded state. Bryan agrees to her terms but hopes that he can convince the only woman he has ever loved that he will be a very different kind of husband.

Audra has been sorely wounded by her philandering and improvident husband. She has to learn to trust both Bryan and herself. As the army makes its way back to winter quarters, she discovers that there is such a thing as selfless love.

All three stories in this anthology are very well done. Each shows effectively the impact of war on people. Each offers a moving romance. Usually in an anthology, one story stands out above the rest. I think I can say in this case, that each of the three novellas was equally satisfying in its own way. The Officer’s Bride will please the many readers who find military heroes and military settings appealing.

--Jean Mason


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