A Perilous Attraction
by Patricia Frances Rowell
(Harl. Hist. #621, $5.25, PG-13) ISBN 0-373-29221-X
Debut author Patricia Frances Rowell pens a solid first effort with A Perilous Attraction, the story of a headstrong young woman who is forced into marriage to settle family debts. Catherine Maury, an orphan, has lived with her aunt and uncle for years - a relationship that was cool, to say the least. When her uncle informs Catherine that he’s lost everything, including her trust fund, in a series of bad investments and plans to emigrate to America, she is shocked. She’s even more horrified to learn that her hand has been promised to Charles Randolph, the Earl of Caldbeck, in repayment for these debts.

Catherine is used to running her own life and doesn’t take kindly to this idea. Caldbeck arrives to discuss the matter and manages to change her mind. He promises they will have a friendly union. Catherine will have the money she needs to continue her pet project: homes for orphaned children who would otherwise be worked to death. In a refreshing change from the usual, Catherine and Charles discuss the pros and cons of their union like adults rather than subjecting readers to a shrill tempter tantrum.

Catherine is soon settled in at the Caldbeck estate, where an unknown villain lurks, waiting to kill any woman Charles brings home. Meanwhile, Charles and Catherine try to make their marriage work.

This book was a good read, but what prevented it from making the jump to an excellent read was the near-total focus on Catherine. Most of the story is told in her point of view, which weakens it. Charles has apparently had his eye on Catherine for some time and is half in love with her when they marry. He even maneuvers the situation with her uncle so Catherine really can’t say no, he’s so afraid of losing her. Why does he want Catherine so desperately? Charles is cool, controlled, and a cipher for much of the book. Catherine wants to shake him up and bring out some emotion, and readers will agree with her. Yet we have almost no clue as to why he’s so reserved, and his supposed passion for Catherine is simply told to us in a rather perfunctory fashion. I kept waiting for the author to let us inside Charles’s head to hear his thoughts about his wife. Alas, I was doomed to disappointment. Where’s the passion? It’s in short supply, albeit there are a couple of fairly steamy scenes between these two.

The villain’s thoughts are included at the end of nearly every chapter, which is standard stuff, and Catherine’s interest in foundlings pretty much disappears until about halfway through the book, when she remembers she’s supposed to be doing something about them. Neither of these plot points was much more than background, though the foundling aspect brings in some useful secondary characters. In particular, the children found in a local mill are presented rather poignantly.

A Perilous Attraction seems to have been aiming for a Gothic overtone to the story, with the cool, reserved hero, the house full of danger, and the innocent young woman. Few Gothics bother to get inside the hero’s head and show him desperately craving his wife. Maybe that’s one reason why they’re struggling to find an audience with today’s readers. This was a wonderful setup for a memorable romance, but the lopsided point of view doesn’t allow the story to reach its full potential.

Having said that, Catherine is spunky, Charles is a charming, warm hero trying to please his wife while keeping her out of danger, and the sparks between them are hot. Rowell does many things very well with this debut release. A Perilous Attraction is a promising first romance.

--Cathy Sova

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