A Gentleman's Wager
by Madelynne Ellis, historical (2008, 2003 reissue)
Black Lace Books, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-352-34173-0


A Gentleman's Wager is a reissue as it was originally published in 2003. If you are not aware that Black Lace Books is a publisher of erotic fiction geared towards women, the front cover and the synopsis at the back cover make it pretty clear that this one contains homosexual as well as heterosexual elements. It's not your everyday historical romance, in other words. In fact, the erotic romance label on the cover is very misleading if you ask me, as this story is more akin to a typical trashy shagfest written by someone like, say, Jackie Collins, only this one has people wearing costumes from the 1700s.

The story is quite simple. The plot is pretty much a sexual merry-go-round among a few characters. Bella Rushdale uses the freedom allowed by a negligent brother to run wild and shag the groom. She has seen her neighbor Lucerne Marlinscar skinny dip and choke the chicken; she likes what she sees so she wants him. Not that it has to be him specifically when she has an itch to scratch - Bella, bless her, doesn't really care as long as the other fellow has the right equipment during those moments of weakness. Her friend Louisa Stanley takes some time to visit Bella and finds herself falling for Capt Frederick Wakefield, although Freddy here, like Bella, isn't picky when he has an itch to scratch. And finally, we have Vaughan Forvasham, fresh from Italy, who embodies the ruthless opportunist who lets nothing, not even scruples, get in the way of his desires. He wants Lucerne and he has also wagered that he can beat Freddy in the race into Louisa's bed.

By the time I reach the last page, everyone has slept with everyone else in all kinds of combination and permutation. This is why I'd hesitate to call this a romance, because if I am to hold this book by the standard of a typical romance novel and what readers expect from such a novel, this one fails spectacularly at many levels. Apart from Louisa who comes off as a generally decent lady who isn't very good at controlling herself and is also rather gullible at times, the rest of the characters are not exactly what I would call a likable bunch. Bella often goes after what she wants without thinking of the consequences, Freddy just can't keep his pants zipped and I have strong doubts about his ability to stay faithful in a marriage, Lucerne is a wishy-washy and indecisive twit, and Vaughan is an amoral user. Characterization isn't deep here, it's more about who is getting it on with who.

But as an erotica, which is what this story actually is if you ask me, this one works pretty well. The sex scenes are pretty hot in a down and dirty manner, and lucky me, there are plenty of them. Ms Ellis eschews euphemisms but her scenes are never clinical.

I believe your reception of this book will depend on what your expectations are. If you want an erotic romance and you want only that, this one may have you wondering whether you have taken a wrong turn and ended up on a different planet. I prefer to view this one as the erotica that it is meant to be, contrary to what the marketing people at Black Lace Books would like me to believe, and therefore in that context, A Gentleman's Wager is a pretty good read. Of course, a part of me wishes that these people will take some time off from their vigorous extra-curricular activities to, oh, I don't know, get a clue or something, but since they are so good at what they are created to do, I'll give them a pass. This time.

Rating: 80


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