|Colonel Leo Standish, Earl of Branford, is annoyed to be assigned to escort a shipment of gold across France. Leo would rather rejoin his own regiment, but he accepts the duty because Wellington needs the money to feed and pay the troops.
Nathan Rothschild has bought gold Napoleons and is sending them via one of his family’s own means, a French equestrian circus, Cirque Equestre. The recently deceased circus owner was a royalist and no friend to Napoleon, but after his death, his daughter Gabrielle Robichon has assumed leadership of the circus. Rothschild is not comfortable entrusting the gold to a young woman and wants a British escort until the gold reaches Portugal. Leo is to pose as Gabrielle’s husband so as to have a reason to join the circus.
Gabrielle has agreed to carry the gold secretly because she knows her father would have wanted her to plus she wants the extra money to pay for her talented brother’s art lessons. She is struck by Leo’s appearance – he is every bit the British aristocrat and devastatingly good looking. She assumes he must be a younger son or he would not be risking his life in the military.
Leo is not a younger son; he is the earl and very aware of his consequence. He cannot help but be aware of Gabrielle’s charms, but he has little appreciation for anyone not British or of his social class. Gabrielle has been taught to ride by her father in the traditional manner; her riding skills are superlative. When Leo sees Gabrielle ride her Lipizzaner horses, he is forced to make a reassessment. Soon he will begin to see Gabrielle and the circus as more than just a brief assignment. But his role and his mission will present dangers.
Will the others in the circus accept him? Will the masquerade be successful? Will the French authorities discover the gold? Can he leave Gabrielle behind when it’s all over?
Here then is the set-up: they’re in a pretend marriage and traveling through enemy territory carrying gold, the discovery of which will bring certain death. Lots of opportunity for sexual and plot tension, right? So where does the story go next?
Pretty much nowhere.
Oh, the circus goes to Lille and then to Amiens and farther south, but the story line lags behind. More time is devoted to Leo’s hashing out personnel problems among the circus performers and Gabrielle’s worrying that she’s in over her head than anything else. Opportunities for high drama – the French learn of the gold – are either ignored or fizzle out. Similarly, the romance never hits its stride. Yes, Gabrielle’s lovely and Leo’s gorgeous and a pretend marriage and sharing a hotel room all guarantee that things aren’t going to remain platonic for long, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into great passion.
Gabrielle remains a fairly undeveloped character. Her main passion seems to be her horses and riding rather than anything she could find with Leo. Leo is a stock Joan Wolf hero – aristocratic, virile, and stupendously capable. His getting the girl is a given even if his nobler-than-thou attitude could grate on one, but who wouldn’t be willing to overlook a few character flaws for a romp with all the masculine beauty? In fact, he’s way too perfect. There’s nothing he can’t handle, nothing he can’t accomplish. A few flaws would be humanizing.
Joan Wolf has long been one of my favorite authors; many of her books are on my shelves – Regencies, medievals, prehistoricals, historicals – and have been read and reread. White Horses, however, is not one of her best. If you’re a big horse enthusiast, you may enjoy reading the segments about the riding and the equestrian circus. If you’re looking for a passionate romance, this will probably disappoint.