Christmas Wedding Belles

Nicola Cornick, Margaret McPhee and Miranda Jarrettt
2007, European Historical Romance
Harlequin, $5.99, 297 pages, Amazon ASIN 0373294719

Grade: B
Sensuality: Warm

Christmas anthologies are a huge comfort read for me. I actually picked up Christmas Wedding Belles without even reading the back. I figured it had Christmas and a Miranda Jarrett story; what's not to love? It turns out that all the stories are somehow connected with "high seas adventure." Sure enough, there's a boat on the cover (it's kind of small, and you can see it from a window). I wasn't sure how well that would really meld with the Christmas idea, because I like to see the whole package, complete with wassail, snowball fights, and romantic trips to procure festive greenery. For the most part, though, the stories are pretty cute.

European Historical Romance (1800s [Late Georgian] England)
The Pirate's Kiss by Nicola Cornick centers around a pair of young lovers who are reunited in an unexpected and dramatic way. Lucinda Melville and Daniel de Lancy were once young lovers engaged to be married. Then Daniel set off on his naval career, apparently forgot about Lucy, and became a notorious pirate. Lucy rushed into an ill-advised marriage with a man who treated her poorly, then became a widow and a governess. When Daniel pops back into her life, he is at a crossroads. He's been secretly working for the government as a legitimate profiteer, but now they'd like to "pardon" him so he can rejoin civilian life and oversee the barony he's inherited and perhaps resume his official naval career. When he runs into Lucy, he's trying to catch a criminal who is trying to smear his name. He'd like a second chance with her so that he can right his past wrongs.

I'm often favorably disposed toward reunion stories like this one, and I genuinely enjoyed watching Daniel and Lucinda fall in love all over again, this time as mature adults who have grown in wisdom and understanding. Daniel particularly shows growth and change within the confines of the short story. I did have a couple of niggles, however. While I am usually willing to suspend my disbelief quite a bit in holiday stories, I found that I simply could not fathom the idea of a couple having sex in the snow. And I do mean naked, in the actual snow. Getting swept away by passion is all well and good, but I just don't think anybody is that hot. My second issue is that Christmas is only present in a "oh, by the way it's Christmas" kind of way. Kind of like in the Anne of Green Gables books, when Diana submits Anne's story to a baking powder contest, adding a couple of lines about "Rolling's Reliable" so it will be eligible. Grade: B-

European Historical Romance (1800s [Late Georgian] England)
Margaret McPhee's A Smuggler's Tale also features a hero who appears to be on the wrong side of the law. Lord Jack Holberton meets Francesca Linden late at night during a smuggling rendezvous. Francesca followed her brother, thinking he was involved in something nefarious, and got caught by Jack. Although Jack is actually trying to apprehend the smugglers by infiltrating their ranks, he can't blow his cover. As Francesca is hauled aboard the ship, he pretends to have his wicked way with her so he can fool the criminals he is trying to expose. Both characters feel genuine passion for each other, but Francesca is uncertain about Jack's intentions. She comes from modest circumstances; her mother is a widow in poor health, and her father was a vicar. Can the handsome, wealthy Jack really be interested in more than a dalliance?

This story is hardly free from outlandishness, but "Oh no, we've got to pretend to have sex", far fetched though it is, is still more believable than a naked mambo in the snow. Francesca is a poor, deserving girl who meets the wealthy, handsome man of her dreams, thereby improving the lives of everyone in her family. Are you sick of stories like this? Me neither. Grade: B

European Historical Romance (1790s Naples)
The Sailor's Bride by Miranda Jarrett definitely has the most unique setting: 1798 Naples. Abigail Layton journeys to Naples in the midst of war, hoping to take up her father's commission to catalogue the extensive antiquities collection of the British ambassador. Though Sir William is skeptical at first, Abigail demonstrates her knowledge and wins the job. She soon acquires an unlikely partner. Lieutenant Lord James Richardson is the younger son of an earl, currently serving in the navy. Nelson volunteers James' services so that the job can be accomplished faster. Everyone knows that the city is fraught with peril; the French are closing in, and time is short. Abigail and James have little in common. She was raised by her scholarly father, and knows a lot about antiquities but little about modern life. James' life has been the navy ever since he became a midshipman as a boy. As they race to complete the task ahead of them, each learns to appreciate each other. Meanwhile, they also try to celebrate the holidays in a traditional English way even though they're far from home.

If you're looking for conflict between the hero and heroine, you definitely won't find it here. These two are in love almost from the get-go, and it's almost a little too fast. That said, there is external conflict in spades. The setting is definitely unique, and the impending danger makes an interesting backdrop. Also interesting is Sir William's wife, Lady Hamilton. An actual historical figure, Lady Hamilton is low-born woman engaged in an affair with Nelson. Surprisingly shrewd about politics and love, she turns out to be one of the more interesting secondary characters in recent memory; quite an achievement in a novella. Grade: B

Though the anthology is high on ships and low on mistletoe and holly, it still manages to be a pretty good read. Each story is worth reading (something that certainly can't be said about every anthology). Christmas Wedding Belles is a perfect book for a busy season.

-- Blythe Barnhill

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