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The Lost Bride by Marianne Willman
(St. Martins, $5.99, PG) ISBN 0-312-96624-50
***
An orphan with a secret, a mysterious legend, an enchanted stranger, a missing fortune, a dashing artist; author Marianne Willman has assembled all the elements needed for a good romantic fantasy. Unfortunately, the pieces never quite fit together.

Lacey's Folly is the beautiful country home long been promised to young Chloe Hartsell – a supposedly distant relative of the late Tobias Lacey. Instead, Tobias shocks Chloe and her brother Peregrine from beyond the grave when his will reveals that Lacey's Folly and all that goes with it have been bequeathed to Gabriel Stone – another distant relation. If ever there was a man in need of a miracle inheritance, it's Gabriel. An artist who veered from his chosen path in pursuit of a woman, Gabriel has high debts and no way to pay them. But the will stipulates that Gabriel cannot sell Lacey's Folly until he has found a suitable husband for Chloe.

There is a great deal of mystery surrounding the manse and its inhabitants. The legend of Lost Lenore, the bride who disappeared on her wedding night is chief among these. The locals believe that she fell asleep inside a faerie ring in the forest after fleeing the marriage bed, and has spent the last 100 years living with the faeries. True or not, Gabriel becomes as fascinated with the legend as old dead Tobias was, and with the beautiful face of Lenore he sees gazing down at him from a picture. Her ethereal beauty haunts him.

But he is also touched by the much more human form of Chloe, the innocent young lady who despairs of becoming some man's chattel. Indeed, it is Chloe he persuades to pose for him in an attempt to ward off his creditors by producing a masterpiece that will gain him a new commission. Artistic expression soon gives way to love, but Chloe's hold on Gabriel's heart is challenged by a mysterious woman who suddenly appears…a woman who looks exactly like Lost Lenore.

The Lost Bride never quite succeeds in its attempts to weave the more fanciful elements of the plot in with the more "realistic." Indeed, for all the story is titled, "The Lost Bride", the story of Lenore and the whereabouts of her secret treasure are only brought to the forefront of the story in the last third of the book. Even when "Lenore" makes her appearance, it is anticlimactic, and after only a few pages, she is relegated to a mere background figure while the hero and heroine make a muddle of their relationship.

That is the case as well with Lord Exton, the man responsible for Gabriel's debt, who is described in such a contradictory manner that the reader is never able to discern the author's intention. Is he as bad as Gabriel says, as generous as he seems when courting Chloe, or is it all an act? We never learn before Exton as well is shifted to the background.

There may be too much "stuff" going on here, but author Willman does describe it all very nicely. Lacey's Folly and the surrounding countryside, Gabriel's paintings, and Chloe's gardens come to vivid life through Willman's descriptive words.

--Ann McGuire


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