Scandalous by Ronda Thompson
(Leisure, $5.50, PG-13) ISBN 0-8439-4805-1
What can you say about a novel that starts out on questionable ground, has as its main conflict a hoary romance cliché, and ends up on a mawkishly sentimental note? You can say, think long and hard before reading Scandalous by Ronda Thompson.

Scandalous is set in England early in the 19th century. Gavin Norfolk, the Marquis of Greenhaven, has come back to Greenhaven for the first time in years. According to the terms of his father's will, Gavin must marry Christine, an orphan raised by a parish close to Greenhaven, or Greenhaven and its lands will be forfeited to charity.

Christine is as unwilling to marry a profligate nobleman as Gavin is to marry a penniless orphan. Christine's life revolves around the parish where she was raised - teaching the children, helping the poor and the sick. However, she promised Gavin's father on his deathbed that she would marry Gavin, and so she does…at least according to the text. Personally, I have my doubts.

Gavin signs the marriage agreement while Christine is still making her reluctant way to the church. He then rides off without getting close enough to his 'bride' to recognize her the next time he sees her. He is out of sight, on his way to tour the Continent, when Christine signs the agreement in turn. Does this constitute a marriage? An engagement, perhaps, but a marriage? But throughout Scandalous no one questions the validity of the marriage, not even the parish vicar.

Two years pass. Christine remains in Greenhaven, ministering to the poor, and never seeing Gavin. Finally, she decides to go to London, confront Gavin, and embarrass him into an annulment by convincing him she is a loose woman. She is sure that if she approaches Gavin honestly and tells him she wants to continue her work in the parish, he will forbid it.

Gavin first sees Christine at a ball, flirting outrageously, making a spectacle of herself. Gavin asks his mistress, the Duchess of Montrose, for an introduction and is naturally taken aback when told that the beauty is his wife. He approaches Christine, dances with her, and tells her that he plans to make her his mistress. She threatens to tell her husband, then - when Gavin reveals his identity - faints.

When Christine comes to, she is in Gavin's bed, and he is attempting to make love to her. Although she finds him attractive, she pushes him away and tells him that he can't have her because her heart belongs to another. At this point my Cliché Alarm started clanging. Would Christine tell Gavin the truth, that she wants to become "a servant of the Lord…married in a sense to God?" For one brief moment, I had hopes that Scandalous would take an original turn and deal with the conflict between a fashionable nobleman and his wife's religious convictions. Alas, instead Christine convinces Gavin that she wants an annulment so that she can marry her lover.

So, by page 41, Christine has made two foolish decisions: first, to try to shame Gavin into an annulment and secondly, to pretend that she has a lover. Not until page 273…232 pages later…does the truth come out. When Gavin does discover the truth about Christine's saintly life, he is so awestruck by her sanctity that I was astonished that he could actually bring himself to consummate the marriage.

There are sub-plots - one involving Gavin's former mistress, another dealing with attacks on Christine, a third addressing Gavin's treatment of his servants - but none of them are either original or particularly interesting. They are definitely not strong enough to redeem this book. Scandalous earned its one-heart rating honestly.

--Nancy J. Silberstein

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