Gambler's Daughter by Ruth Owen
(Bantam, $5.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-553-57742-5
***
Ruth Owen has written several contemporary category romances, but her heart has always been in Regency England. Her first historical novel suggests that she may well be able to follow her heart. Gambler's Daughter, despite a few niggling problems, is an entertaining and likable story.

The Gambler's Daughter is Sabrina Murphy and as the story opens, she is burying her much loved father. Daniel Murphy had been a charming rogue. He had eloped with his employer's daughter and the family had been happy until his wife's death. Daniel had then abandoned his position and brought his daughter to London where he lived by his wits. He had married his landlady, but this had not improved Sabrina's life. Instead, she found herself working as a drudge for her unpleasant and parsimonious stepmother.

When her unpleasant stepbrother Albert tries to rape her, Sabrina defends herself with a candlestick to his head. His mother accuses her of murder and she must flee. Her only refuge is with a friend of her father.

Michael Quinn had approached Sabrina after her father's funeral about helping him with a scheme that would make them both rich but Sabrina had refused. Now, a fugitive from an unjust murder charge, Sabrina decides to go along with Quinn's plans to defraud the rich and powerful Trevelyan family.

Sabrina agrees to impersonate Prudence Winthrop, the cousin of the Earl of Trevelyan, who supposedly died in a fire in Italy at the age of eight. Quinn, who has his own reasons for hating the Trevelyans, has concocted a plausible story to explain "Prudence's" sudden reappearance. If Sabrina can convince the family that she is in fact Prudence, then she can steal the heirloom diamond necklace and the two will be set for life.

So Sabrina finds herself on her way to Cornwall. Of course, nothing goes as planned. The family is not haughty and selfish, but rather welcoming and in need of Sabrina's level-headed good sense. She is particularly drawn to the two young children of the earl who lost their mother two years earlier, but she also becomes fond of the dowager countess and the earl's young sister. This isn't working out as she expected. But how can she admit her deception with the murder accusation facing her?

Of course, there is the earl. Trevelyan is very suspicious of "Prudence's" claim, but he is also attracted to his supposed "cousin." There is a mystery attached to the previous countess' death, a mystery that has left Edward a bitter and unhappy man. When Sabrina begins to suffer from strange accidents, it seems that someone has noticed the earl's growing affection for his "cousin" and is acting to eliminate her.

Which brings me to the niggling plot problems. Actually, I figured out the whole plot almost immediately. Perhaps I have read too many books, but the obviousness of storyline was disappointing. Also, I found the swiftness of Edward's response to Sabrina a bit disconcerting. I do like to see attraction develop rather than emerge with what seems to me to be inexplicable speed. Finally, the consummation of the romance seemed a bit too much of a "forced seduction" for my tastes.

Despite these quibbles, there is much to enjoy in Gambler's Daughter. Sabrina is a suitably intrepid heroine. Edward is a wounded hero who has to learn to trust after his betrayal by his wife. There is a nice secondary romance as well between Edward's sister and the local doctor. And there is a fine evocation of the wilds of the Cornwall coast.

Gambler's Daughter is a promising first foray into historical romance and I shall look forward to Ruth Owen's books in the future. It is clear that she does love Regency England and feels at home there.

--Jean Mason


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