December 2008, European Historical Romance (Regency England)
Harl Historical #925, $5.99, 288 pages, Amazon ASIN 0373295251
The Mistletoe Wager is marriage in trouble tale. It has a significant Christmas feel to it, and may well appeal to readers who like Regency house parties.
Harry Pennyngton, Earl of Anneslea, is tired of being estranged from his wife, Elise. Two months previously, she left the family seat and has taken up with her former beau, Nicholas Tremaine, in London and hinted that she'd like a divorce. Harry always thought their marriage was perfect, but there is nothing like abandonment and replacement to make one question one's assumptions. Harry resolves to show Elise what she is missing and plans a Christmas party at his estate. He invites – dares, rather – Tremaine to come, knowing Elise will show up out of curiosity. And when she does, he puts the rest of his subtle and complex plan to win her back in motion.
Hosting Harry's house party is not his half-sister, Rosalind's, idea of fun, but she will do it for Harry because she loves him and senses his misery. However, when Tremaine, the rake with whom Rosalind once had a ruinous run-in, arrives, she wishes she could disappear. Fate would have other plans, however...
Rather than write a main romance with a secondary romance sub-plot, Merrill chose to balance out her two stories – the one involving Harry and Elise and the one involving Rosalind and Tremaine – very evenly. The conflict between Harry and Elise is not actually very dramatic. It becomes evident to the reader early on that they love each other and no irreparable damage to their relationship has been done. They could not, however, communicate their way out of a paper bag, and they are both proud. While their lack of communication, and its corresponding story padding, gives Rosalind and Tremaine plenty of time to interact and get to know each other better, it is a little frustrating to read. Harry spends his time puppeteering his house guests, and saying nothing to Elise about what she means to him. Elise waffles back and forth between almost giving in to Harry and playing jealousy games using Tremaine as her prop.
The story involving Rosalind and Tremaine is better since they have less to conceal and their chemistry is stronger. The basis for their relationship is one mishap at a Christmas party years ago, and neither has forgotten the other. Rosalind though, knows Tremaine's reputation and is determined not to be played by him again. Her best defense is an offense and she resists his charm with a directness that intrigues him. I liked her matter-of-factness and her willingness to call him on his behavior.
Almost all of the book's action takes place over the course of a few snowed-in days during the Christmas holidays, and the festivities are many and varied. Regency England did not celebrate Christmas to nearly the extent Victorians did, but Merrill gets around this by making Elise German instead of English, so she can have her characters decking out a Christmas tree, etc. The house party aspect is less developed because Merrill does not waste characterization on any but her primary four.
The Mistletoe Wager started out strong with conflict and hinted-at secrets, but dragged in the middle as Elise and Harry reacted instead of communicating. The "secondary" romance was fairly enjoyable, but ended with a somewhat dramatic, not-quite believable flourish. Both couples seemed nice enough, but not terribly memorable, unfortunately. If you are looking for a Christmas-themed romance, though, you could do worse.
-- Rachel Potter
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