A Christmas Wedding Wager

Michelle Styles
December 2007, European Historical Romance (1840s [Victorian] England)
Harl Historicals #878, $5.99, 293 pages, Amazon ASIN 0373294786

Grade: C+
Sensuality: Subtle

Michelle Styles is best-known for romances set in Ancient Rome, and I know that some of her readers were disappointed that her latest romance is set in Victorian England. I had never read anything by her and was happy to pick up A Christmas Wedding Wager. I enjoyed many facets of the book, but one important factor kept me from grading it a better than average read.

First of all, about the title: There is no wager whatsoever in the novel. I looked, I really did. There is a dare, and one or two bargains, but no wager. I was not at all disappointed by that, mind you, as I think wagers one of the most over-used plot devices in romance. Still, if you were going to read this book solely because you are fond of wager plots, donít bother. However, I am in no way blaming Michelle Styles for this. I suspect Harlequin is responsible for the title.

The novel is set in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. I was thrilled to discovered this, first because it is a fairly original setting, and secondly because I studied in Newcastle for six months and know the place quite well. Does Michelle Styles succeed in evoking Newcastle? Weeell Ė she includes real places and buildings in a convincing manner, but I did miss the steep roads and ice-cold December winds.

The year is 1846, and England is in a fever of railway building. Eight years earlier Emma Harrison, daughter of a successful Newcastle builder, fell in love with one of her fatherís assistants, former charity boy Jack Stanton. He proposed, but she felt it her duty to look after her ailing mother, and before the matter could be discussed further, Jack vanished without a word. Emma has changed a lot since then. Sitting by her motherís bedside left her with a lot of time on her hands, and she employed it by studying all of her fatherís books on architecture. Now that her mother is dead, and her father ill for some months, Emma has been in charge of the company, making sure that the work on the railway bridge continues. This is, btw, the High Level Bridge. Michelle Styles takes the real bridge and its design by Robert Stevenson, but has it built by an imaginary company.

Emma feels less than thrilled when Stevensonís partner arrives and turns out to be none other than Jack Stanton, who has gone on to become a railway pioneer. They immediately begin to fight Ė in his eyes, it is unbelievable that pretty, frivolous Emma knows anything about building a bridge, and she is afraid that once he discovers how ill her father really is, he will take over both the site and the company. Much to Emma's distress, they will also have plenty of occasions for quarrelling as Emmaís father, who is obviously matchmaking, invites Jack to stay at his house.

While Emmaís and Jackís initial distrust of the otherís motives is plausible, it gets old pretty soon. Jack's condescension about Emmaís interest in the company will annoy most readers, but it does fit the period, and he soon understands that she is more deeply involved in the work than he thought possible. Once he gets that, he is perfectly well prepared to accept her expertise. I had some difficulties in believing that a former charity boy would fit in so well with Emmaís upper middle class world, but then these entrepreneurs in romanceland often do their social climbing without a hitch. Other than that, Jack is a fairly nice guy, with the usual hero's tendency to leave his beloved in the dark about important matters.

Bigger issues involved Emma, though. Breaking up with Jack in the past was very painful for her, but other than his leaving Newcastle, she has no reason to believe he is dishonest or immoral. Why then does she distrust him continuously, and in the face of all evidence? Whatever the situation Emma and Jack find themselves in, she always expects the worst of him, never ever giving him the benefit of the doubt. This completely destroyed my belief in the HEA. Loving someone (with a hope for the future, that is) means thinking well of them, and I didnít see Emma doing much of that. In addition, for far too long she rejects any suggestion that Jack might be interested in her again, as people keep telling her. Sheís a 26-year-old spinster who gets kissed and pestered into dancing by a most handsome man, and yet she steadfastly believes he cannot possibly be wooing her...oh no, he said he didnít want to marry... well, he said so in a quarrel but I am sure he meant it religiously anyway...

So, although I usually love second-chance-at-love stories and I enjoyed many of the descriptions in A Christmas Wedding Wager, I cannot recommend it. Both Jack and the rest of the book deserved a better heroine than Emma.

-- Rike Horstmann

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