A reclusive former soldier, the younger brother of a titled lord, must marry in order to ensure the succession of his family line. A shy or unattractive heroine who has never had a suitor. What do these plot points have in common? They were picked by readers to be the basis for the four stories in It Happened One Season. Four talented voices in historical romance have reunited to take on taken on the challenge of creating unique novellas using these elements.
"The Seduction of Sebastian Trantor" by Stephanie Laurens
After his fifth niece is born, Sebastian Trantor agrees to marry and beget himself an heir. The only problem? He can't seem to find a tolerable prospective bride. Until one night at a ball he catches Tabitha Makepeace breaking into a desk in their host's library. Tabitha's headstrong nature and determination to catch a blackmailer targeting her friends captures Sebastian's attention. And when the two are caught in the library, Sebastian saves Tabitha's reputation by claiming they're engaged. Though he tells Tabitha their "engagement" will only last while he helps her catch the blackmailer, in truth, Sebastian is sure that Tabitha is the perfect bride for him. He just has to convince her of that.
Of all the stories in the anthology, "The Seduction of Sebastian Trantor" feels the most blatantly constructed, as if the elements of the common plot were listed to be taken care of. However, once Sebastian and Tabitha's story hits its stride, the awkwardness of the setup vanishes and a fun Regency romp is left in its stead. Tabitha is endearingly quirky and Sebastian both seductive and scholarly. They make a good team as they hunt down the blackmailer and they fit equally well as a couple. While there's a bit of an awkward start to "The Seduction of Sebastian Trantor," in the end Stephanie Laurens delivers her usual entertaining brand of romance.
"Only Love" by Mary Balogh
Cleo Pritchard has been married and widowed, but she's never truly had a lover or a suitor. In fact, the only man who has ever truly "seen" her was Major Jack Gilchrist. But of course, though Cleo treasures the memory of her one brief glimpse of love, she has no delusions that Jack even remembers her.
Jack may not have remembered Cleo until he sees her once more, but once he does he can't get his mind off of her. Cleo seems so content with her life and Jack knows he should be courting some young debutante whom he can wed and bed...yet the only woman he wants is Cleo. Cleo, however, doesn't want to marry him when his sole reason for marriage is to produce an heir and she's not certain she can have children. Can Jack convince her that, no matter what, Cleo is the bride for him?
Mary Balogh had me sighing from the first page of "Only Love." Cleo is the embodiment of the average woman - one who isn't beautiful or bold or extraordinary - and her realistic take on her own life both tugged at my heartstrings and helped me become invested in her story. It's impossible not to fall into "Only Love," for you want to see Cleo come out of her shell a bit and find happiness. Jack, who is handsome and kind, is just the man to make Cleo happy. He sees the beauty in her and appreciates Cleo for all that she is. How can you resist a hero like that? By turns sweet and softly sensual, "Only Love" is a treat to read.
"Hope Springs Eternal" by Jacquie D'Alessandro
Alec Trentwell is riddled with guilt over the death of Edward Markham. As such, he is determined to keep watch over Edward's sister, Penelope. The beautiful artist is everything Alec desires and, most importantly, she seems to be desperately in need of funds. Since she won't take charity, Alec commissions her to paint his portrait. His plan hits a snag when scandal threatens to ruin Penelope. Since Alec must wed anyway, he does the one thing he can to solve her plan and his: he proposes. But what will happen when Penelope learns of the role Alec played in her brother's death?
Likeable protagonists bring life to "Hope Springs Eternal." Penelope is an endearing, straightforward heroine that seems almost tailor-made to suit Alec, the tortured soul hero. While I liked these two together, there was a lot of buildup to Alec telling Penelope how her brother died. Yet, almost from the first it's clear to readers that Alec's guilt is misplaced. This doesn't invalidate his feelings, but it does lessen the impact of "Hope Springs Eternal." I liked "Hope Springs Eternal," but something about the story just felt a touch short for me.
"Fate Strikes a Bargain" by Candice Hern
Nathaniel Beckwith has no desire to be out and about in society. Unfortunately, he has to find a suitable wife, which means the retired soldier must brush off his rusty manners and brave the Marriage Mart. Fate - and a strategically-placed orange tree - looks kindly on Nat when he meets the lovely Philippa Reynolds. With a disability that leaves her unable to dance or walk without a pronounced limp, Philippa is a perpetual wallflower. She also happens to be clever and kind, both traits which attract Nat immediately. He doesn't want to deal with the insanity that is courting a girl of the ton and she has no suitors in sight. What better solution can there be than an engagement between the pair?
If I were pressed to pick a favorite story in this anthology, "Fate Strikes a Bargain" would win, hands-down. Candice Hern charmed me from the very first page with the dynamic between Philippa and Nat. Both of them are part and yet apart from the rest of society, a fact which helps them bond rather quickly. Where most people only see Nat's military career and the fact that his son will one day be an earl, Philipa sees the man himself. Nat, too, sees beyond the surface. In Philippa's case, almost everybody - including those that love her best - sees only her disability. Nat sees her, listens to her, and, quite naturally, falls for her. I confess, Ms. Hern made me both smile and positively melt with their romance and I finished "Fate Strikes a Bargain" an incredibly satisfied reader.
Can four different authors take the same plot elements and create four very different stories? Yes. The stories by Mses. Laurens, Balogh, D'Alessandro, and Hern are all unique, entertaining tales. It Happened One Season is a wonderful anthology and fans of historical romance are sure to be delighted by this book.
Reviewed for Joyfully Reviewed