Anthologies are curious things. With different authors you often find you're reading several entirely unrelated stories, possibly linked around a theme but with little else to enable them to sit happily together. This book is the same, with two stories set in America and two in England, most around the English Regency period (although I'm not sure of the dating of the two set in America) and all featuring a wedding but apart from that there seems little to tie them together. As an introduction to the works of these authors this is a useful book but sadly this reader only found one story worthwhile in the collection.
The first story, "Fancy Free", by Catherine Anderson surprised me by not being set in the Regency period in England, which is what I thought this book was about (although this was my mistake as it doesn't specify English Regency on the cover, it was just the featured authors that made me assume this). Instead it was set in America in some unspecified time in history (my knowledge of American history isn't enough for me to know when) and features Clint Rafferty, a cattle rancher, and his family of seven younger brothers who finds himself getting married, rather unexpectedly, and at the end of a pistol, to Rachel Constantine. So how can people settle down after a shotgun marriage when they know very little about each other and when Rachel is well aware she's not want Clint wanted? He wants someone to make a home but her cooking skills are somewhat lacking, especially as she can't see anything due to excessive short-sight and that she believes if she wears her spectacles men will be appalled by her ugliness. I felt the realism of this story was sorely lacking in terms of how Rachel could cope with her short-sight, especially when we learn she couldn't read a recipe - short sight would meant that she COULD read paper close to, it's distance things that would be a problem. Somehow Clint and the boys don't seem to mind her disasters and very quickly she becomes important to them. But Rachel has a low self image and doesn't understand this and when another woman comes to the house she can't handle it and runs away - Clint and she have to decide what is important to them.
This was a pleasant enough story but there wasn't any great character depth and I did have some problems overall with Rachel's domestic skills, especially bearing in mind her eyesight problems. Sometimes she seemed almost blind, other times it was clear she must have been able to see reasonably in order to function in public without her spectacles. It was an OK read but nothing that special and didn't inspire me to read anything more from this author.
THE MAD EARL'S BRIDE
The second story, "The Mad Earl's Bride" by Loretta Chase, was rather more engaging. We are given a brief history of Dorian Camoys' youth under his autocratic grandfather. Dorian knows that he is beginning to succumb to the same brain disorder that killed his mother - after she had spent some time in a lunatic asylum. He returns to Dartmoor to live his last months in peace but his peace is shattered when the other close members of his family die and he inherits the title of Earl of Rawnsley and finds one of his distant relatives trying to help arrange the succession. Dorian is asked to marry Gwendolyn, a young woman who badly needs his money in order to build a hospital. Gwendolyn wishes she had been born a man as she wants to be a doctor but no men except for one doctor ever take her seriously. Her experiences in learning about medicine mean that she can help Dorian in his last months and so they marry. However there is much research to be done about his condition and as it begins to worsen they begin to plan for the future and to learn about each other.
This story has links to "Lord of Scoundrels" and some of the characters from that story appear in this. It's a very enjoyable read and although a short story it seems surprisingly detailed. I very much enjoy Loretta Chase's writing style although her Regencies occasionally slip into Americanisms, but overall this is a good story with a likeable hero and heroine and a rather different theme from the norm.
"Promises" by Lisa Kleypas is another story set in England in the Regency period. Lidian Acland, our heroine, has been holding a torch for the improbably named Chance Spencer for a year whilst he does the Grand Tour. However her mother (along with pretty much everyone else) thinks Chance isn't worth her devotion and tries to encourage Lidian to look at other men. None interests her until she meets Eric de Gray, heir to an Earldom and squiring his sister at various parties. She and Eric clash a number of times as he tries to get her to see Chance for who he really is and Lidian wants to hang on to her dream. There's another mini romance within this story which isn't particularly detailed but is enjoyable.
The writing in this story was fine and the setting (for example the hero and heroine take a walk in Vauxhall Gardens) was well described but unfortunately I didn't get into the characters in this story. Eric seemed over-harsh and not very warm to Lidian, Lidian seemed rather stupid about Chance when we are told she is intelligent. Her behaviour is also not appropriate for a woman in her situation, going out unchaperoned etc, and her supposed constancy towards Chance is also dropped surprisingly quickly. Still it was a reasonable enough read if not particularly deep.
The final story is much shorter than all the rest (the first two accounted for over two thirds of the book) at only 29 pages. Written by Kathleen E Woodiwiss it was evidently a follow-up to another previous story (which I haven't read) which detailed the relationship between Brandon and Heather Birmingham. This couple's relationship is referred to repeatedly in this story and we also meet them in this tale.
"The Kiss" takes place in Charleston, America, and is about Brandon's brother Jeffrey who finds himself unexpectedly coming to the aid of a woman whose guardian is about to sell her to a man. Jeffrey buys her instead, takes her home and then realises that he hasn't necessarily helped her situation as he will have compromised her by buying her in public. He resolves this in a fairly obvious way and then the story ends. It's a 'love at first sight' story which I couldn't always believe but then a story this short can't go too much in depth. However there was one significant irritant - the author seems to have rather a small stock of adjectives and she massively over-used the adjective 'manly'. We had 'manly shoulders', 'manly scent of his cologne', 'manly form', 'manly costume', 'manly desires' and the rather bizarre 'manly tread' as he walks across the room - all in 29 pages. The other descriptions were all rather basic, 'narrow hips', 'slender waist', that kind of thing. This writing style proved rather irritating to this reader and the rest of the story wasn't really engaging enough to make it truly enjoyable.
In conclusion this is a rather bitty collection of stories. The only real stand-out story is Loretta Chase's one, the other three are ultimately fairly forgettable and seem to have either plot problems or writing disappointments. I understand this book won a number of awards but I'm not really sure why as I felt it was rather a disappointment.