Hallowe'en Husbands

Lisa Plumley, Denise Lynn and Christine Merrill
September 2008, Paranormal Historical
Harlequin Historical, $5.99, 276 pages, Amazon ASIN 0373295170

Grade: B-
Sensuality: Varies

I've reviewed many a Christmas anthology in my time, but Halloween anthologies are not as plentiful. Given my generally favorable stance on holiday stories, I was eager to give Hallowe'en Husbands a shot, and for the most part I wasn't disappointed. One story was a bust, but the other two were quick and enjoyable - which is exactly what I look for in a short story.

Paranormal Historical (1880s Arizona)
Sensuality: Kisses
Marriage at Morrow Creek by Lisa Plumley starts out with a somewhat different idea. The heroine, Rose Tillson, travels with a medicine show, helping her father sell a tonic with genuine Chinese Herbs. Unlike all their competitors' products, "Tillson & Healy's patented Miracle Elixir & Celebrated Panacea" contains no alcohol. (By the way, if you are familiar with Sweeney Todd, you probably won't be able to stop singing Pirelli's Miracle Elixir...I couldn't.) Anyway, despite her semi-exotic rambling life, Rose's dream is fairly commonplace, and close at hand. She wants Will, her father's right hand man, to notice her. The story basically consists of Rose throwing herself at Will over and over as he holds her at an arm's length. Periodically, Rose converses with a woman named Mrs. Brown, who a) gives her advice and b) is a ghost. Will resists Rose's advances because if he didn't, the story would be too short. He has no other reason. All of this takes place around Halloween, and Rose is involved in the town's preparations for the town's Halloween festival, which she attends with Will as her date (after she begs him to go with her).

I actually liked the medicine show idea, which was something I'd never seen before. I didn't mind the whole ghost thing either, since this was, after all, a Halloween anthology. Unfortunately, I disliked both Rose and Will. Rose is probably supposed to be innocent, but instead she comes across as almost painfully stupid. She reminded me of a naive teenager...only dumber. Her attempts to get Will's attention made me cringe after awhile. They also led to the inevitable question: Who would want Will's attention anyway? He rebuffs her because he is a "wandering man." Whatever. I might have wished for him to just do her and get it over with - had I cared about either of them. There are also several mentions about characters from other books who live in the town of Morrow Creek, but none of them sounded all that interesting either. Grade: C-

Paranormal Historical (1110s England)
Sensuality: Warm
Denise Lynn's Wedding at Warehaven was much better. Sir Randall Fitzhenry, illegitimate son of the king, is charged with securing the keep of Warehaven, and discovering (and eradicating) the source of the pagan rituals that occur there. As part of his errand, his father has bid him to marry the "Warehaven Witch" in the hopes that the marriage will subdue the keep's inhabitants and make them loyal. While her father and brothers-in-law are away, Brigit Warehaven and her sisters try something a little daring: They sneak down to the All Hallow's Eve bonfire, each hoping that it will grant them a wish. One sister wishes to see how many babies she and her husband will have, and another wants to cast a charm to increase her husband's desire for her. As Brigit has no husband, she hopes that the fire will show her a glimpse of her true love. Instead, it shows her a glimpse of Sir Randall, crashing into her family's keep and taking it over handily. Sir Randall immediately decides that Brigit is the Warehaven Witch, and since she's quite attractive, he has no objections to marrying her. Brigit is less than thrilled with the idea, but the castle's priest convinces her that she has no choice. Brigit then spends the rest of the book deciding between conflicting loyalties. Should she support her new husband, even if it means betraying her father? Can she trust him to protect her when she is threatened?

Though the story is short - and the theme familiar - it really works well in this context. Brigit's conflicting loyalties make perfect sense given her circumstances, and Randall is actually a decent guy despite his bloody reputation. I liked them both, and was satisfied with the way their story played out. The author also gets bonus points for incorporating the Halloween theme in a fun way. The villain (whose identity is no secret) is a crazed, Woden-worshiping pagan who wants to sacrifice Brigit to his god. You don't see that every day. Grade: B

Paranormal Historical (Regency England)
Sensuality: Warm
Master of Penlowen by Christine Merrill is also good, though it has more fantastic elements than the other stories. Arabella Scott's coach is robbed as she travels to her new job as companion to an elderly woman. Bandits make off with the whole coach, and initially they don't even realize she's inside. When she tries to escape, the discover her, and she's on the verge of ruin when rescue arrives. Richard Atherton (late of the cavalry) kills her attackers and takes her to his home to ride out a sudden storm. It quickly becomes clear, however, that this is no ordinary home. Richard forbids Arabella to leave the entrance hall (while he sees to the horses), and they go straight up to his bedroom, which he expects the two of them to share. Arabella is understandably dubious, but it appears the house has no servants during the night time, and the room is oddly lit with many candles. When Arabella leave the bedroom, she has a near death experience and feels like she is drowning, only to be saved at the last moment by Richard. As the evening unfolds, Richard tells her the story of his ancestor Robert, who was accused of murdering his wife. The house appears to be a paranormal minefield with an agenda of its own, and destiny has dictated that Arabella and Richard discover the truth about the house and his ancestors together.

Clearly, this is a tale that requires one to suspend disbelief, and not only because of the house-with-agenda; Arabella and Richard meet, conquer all, and fall in love within a period of hours. That said, anthologies get a lot of leeway from me in this regard as long as I like the characters enough and the story is interesting, and this succeeded in both regards. Richard was a little pushy in the way he belittled Arabella's chosen profession (paid companion), but I found I could forgive him in the end. Grade: B

On the whole, the book just sneaks into B- territory, but since the second two stories are both solid B material, I'd recommend giving it a shot and reading those two alone. The Lynn and Merrill contributions should make for some fun fall reading.

-- Blythe Barnhill

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