One Candlelit Christmas

Julia Justiss, Annie Burrows and Terri Brisbin
November 2008, European Historical Romance
Harl Historicals, #919, $5.99, 273 pages, Amazon ASIN 0373295197

Grade: B-
Sensuality: Varies

As the days grow shorter, and Christmas lights are put up everywhere, I find myself browsing through holiday romances in the bookstores and online. Harlequin very reliably produces one Regency Christmas anthology each year, and as One Candlelit Christmas features a story by a favorite author of mine, Julia Justiss, the book was soon bought, and proved a good find for the season.

European Historical Romance (Regency England)
Sensuality: Warm

Christmas Wedding Wish by Julia Justiss is a sequel both to her older The Wedding Gamble and this year’s A Most Unconventional Match, which I adored. This story was the main reason I bought the anthology, but would it live up to my expectations? It mostly did. Disappointed in love some months earlier, Allen Mansfell plans to choose a wife rationally - for breeding, good character, mutual respect and companionship. When he pays a visit to the Wellingford family just before Christmas, he meets Meredyth, the eldest unmarried sister (in fact, she is two years older than he is), and she strikes him as the perfect bride. Meredyth’s fiancé died many years ago, and she has never really considered marriage since. Now, however, with several of her sisters pregnant, she begins to wonder at what she’s missing. Having observed her parents’ extremely unhappy marriage, however, which was based on lukewarm affection, she won’t settle for anything less than love. She and Allen feel strongly attracted from the first, but what will they do once they discover their conflicting expectations?

For the most part, this is a beautiful, very quiet story of two people slowly getting to know each other. I liked both Meredyth and Allen, and I smiled as I read about their very different readings of their relationship and their own feelings. During the last twenty pages, there is a fairly dramatic development for such a subtle story, and I found it jarring – other readers may well like it better. For me, anyway, this spoiled my enjoyment of the story to a certain extent, though I still liked it overall.

Grade: B

European Historical Romance (Regency England)
Sensuality: Kisses

In spite of suffering from advanced title silliness, The Rake’s Secret Son by Annie Burrows is a nice story by a promising new author. It begins with six-year-old Harry Tillotson in the village church, blaming God for not giving his mother a husband like Joseph, who stood by his wife while she bore a child that was not his. The same day, Harry’s mother Nell, who ekes out an existence for both of them in a small cottage, finds a feverish stranger in rags outside her door and recognizes her husband Carleton Tillotson, Viscount Lambourne. After the deterioration of their marriage, Carleton went to Spain, and Nell later heard that he was captured and shot as a spy. He survived, however, and managed to make his way back to England and to a small property owned by his family where he is surprised to find his estranged wife established, together with the boy whom he considers her bastard son. Carleton is broke and sick with fever, and so he has to stay until he is better. This gives him and Nell the chance to find out what really went wrong in their marriage all that time ago.

This story’s strong point comes from the reader getting thrown into the middle of the situation. Together with the protagonists, who each only know half of the story, we find out what really happened. Both acted silly at some point, especially Carleton, but the way his old self is depicted as a spoilt and callow youth makes his actions believable, and he has come a long way since then. However, the detailed evocations of the past are also the story’s weak point, as they take up a lot of room, and I would have liked to read more about Nell and Carleton’s present relationship. What I did enjoy, however, was the way each family member – Nell, Carleton and Harry – contributes to achieving the happy ending.

Grade: B

European Historical Romance (Regency England)
Sensuality: Kisses

Blame It on the Mistletoe by Terri Brisbin left me with mixed feelings: pleased about the story’s strengths, annoyed with its weaknesses. Julia Fairchild, younger sister to the heroine of The Earl’s Secret, attends a Christmas house party at the brother-in-law’s estate in Northumberland. As a teenager she used to have a crush on Iain MacLerie, but she hasn’t seen him in the last five years. Four years ago, Iain’s parents died in a carriage accident, and he was badly maimed. He suffered through a slow and agonizing recovery, and he will be crippled and in pain for the rest of his life. When he and Julia meet, their old attraction flares up again, but he feels Julia deserves more than a cripple.

I liked the fact that Iain is not your run-of-the-mill handicapped hero, with an interesting scar and a slight limp, but someone who has to live with pain and severe limitations in his ability to move, always. Unfortunately the story does not explore what marrying a handicapped person might really mean: the worries, the bad temper, the daily stress of needing immeasurable patience. Instead Iain only agonizes that he will not be able to save her should she get into danger, which appears silly in comparison. The main characters of The Earl’s Secret feature prominently, and descriptions of Christmas celebrations abound. I felt that was time wasted, because I would have preferred to have far more interaction between Julia and Iain – as it is, they hardly spend any time together, and this makes their romance seem superficial. That said, the scene in which they finally come together is wonderfully moving and one of the best I have read this year.

Grade: C

One Candlelit Christmas is a good holiday anthology and possibly unique among anthologies in that it doesn’t contain a single truly ghastly story. I enjoyed it a lot and have discovered one new author, Annie Burrows, for whose other stories I will be on the lookout. Julia Justiss is extremely readable as usual. This should be a pleasurable addition to your holiday reading!

-- Rike Horstmann

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