His Chosen Bride
by Alexandra Bassett, historical (2005)
Zebra, $6.50, ISBN 0-8217-7786-6

Alexandra Bassett is the pseudonym for sisters Elizabeth and Julia Bass. Elizabeth Bass also writes historical and contemporary romances under the name Liz Ireland, by the way. Fans of Liz Ireland will find plenty of the same things that make her books enjoyable in His Chosen Bride. For me, I find this book a fun tale to get into, but that's because of the secondary characters. The hero and the heroine, on their own, are dull in their own right.

A comedy of errors of sorts, His Chosen Bride tells the story of our hero Nathan Cantrell, a war hero, who returns home to the Willows only to realize that the family home is heavily mortgaged to the neighbor, Sir Harlan Wingate. In one month, Sir Harlan can and will claim the Willows as his own and toss Nathan and his brother Freddy out without a second thought. Freddy, a dandy who takes fashion to laughable extremes, decides to help by becoming a (really bad) poet and hopefully rake in the money from his upcoming debut. Sir Harlan, a former tradesman who married a blue-blooded lady, has three daughters. The eldest, Violet, is an insufferable snob who is hoping that the old and palsied nearby Earl will notice her and sweep her into a life that she knows she deserves to have. The youngest, Sophy, is determined to throw herself into the arms of every young and handsome man she comes across, the last being a reason why the Wingate household staff are all into their twilight years. Abigail, the middle daughter, writes bestselling lurid Gothics under a pseudonym and lets the family believe that she is sickly so that she can be left alone to her bluestocking pursuits.

When Harland demands that Nathan marries one of his three daughters in exchange for him tearing up the IOUs of Nathan's late father, Nathan balks. But he is attracted to Abigail and clearly his brother Freddy will be unable to function outside the self-indulgent excessive world of the Ton, so he is soon trying to woo Abigail. However, Abigail is the unfortunate kind of heroine who is not just trite and stereotypical as a bluestocking sort, she is also on the dim side, jumping to all sorts of conclusions regarding Nathan and Violet (and later Sophy). On the bright side, Abigail merely comes off as a little dim, no doubt due to her sheltered lifestyle, and her only flaw is that she thinks she is so much more worldly about men and the matters of the heart than she actually is. Nathan is also a little slow, with the way he handles his courtship leading to the predictable overreaction from the dim-witted Abigail when she learns of the blackmail scheme Harland is pressing on Nathan.

Needless to say, Abigail and Nathan are the weakest links in this story because on their own, they have very little entertainment value. They are nice people, actually, with Nathan being a decent non-rakish guy who just doesn't want to be forced to get married and Abigail, bless her dullness, is a nice young lady who just happens to think she know more than she actually does about things. We've all been in her shoes one way or the other, I'm sure. It just happens that these two characters are boring compared to the secondary characters. From the ridiculously snobbish Violet to the equally insufferable butler to the incorrigible Sophy and even the ridiculous Freddy, these characters all steal the show from Nathan and Abigail. The biggest scene-stealer is Sir Harlan Winstead, one of the most adorable cantankerous coots ever. He loves money and is not ashamed of that. I have to laugh when he accepts Abigail's career because, as he says, there is nothing wrong at all with "literate females who make money"!

Because the main characters can't really hold my interest, in the late quarter of the book when Nathan and Abigail ditch the secondary characters for their own soap opera of two, the book morphs into a boring romp of two immature kids playing silly games with each other. I find myself missing scenes like this one, when Abigail reveals her father's blackmailing Nathan to her sisters and expect them to react with righteous outrage similar to hers:

Abigail had not been certain how her sister would react, but she was gratified to see Violet move swiftly to her side, clearly offended. "Father!" she cried, staring at him in horror.

Sir Harlan was decidedly shamefaced. "Of course, it does seem a little underhanded when Abigail puts it so bluntly..."

Violet shook her head and scolded, "Why did you not blackmail the earl?"

I love many things about this charming romantic comedy, from the amusing fact that the staff in Sir Harlan's house are all old and doddering to every thing about Sir Harlan's adorable self. Ms Bassett's greatest triumph in this book is creating a set of characters that may be stereotypical but Ms Bassett makes them her own as well. While the comedy becomes rather strained and forced later in the story, especially when Abigail and Nathan start playing their silly games in an obvious effort to prolong the story, on the whole His Chosen Bride is a feel-good romantic comedy that works very well. Unfortunately, I wish I can say the same for the main characters!

Rating: 79

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