When I first started reading traditional Regencies as a young teen there were two authors whose books I read voraciously – Sheila Walsh and Joan Wolf. Like Carla Kelly has done more recently, they wrote of strong-willed characters dealing with difficult situations and finding themselves – will-they, nill-they – in love. They were unlike other Regencies in that the focus was rarely on a London ballroom. Instead it was on the romance that could occur in the oddest of places and between the unlikeliest of people. When she moved to longer historicals, there was something missing. Where was the intensity of Margarita or the against all odds relationship in A Difficult Truce? That last, at least, is back in White Horses. And though the novel falters a bit when the action plotting is center stage, this almost felt like the Joan Wolf of the Signet days.
Colonel Leo Standish, Earl of Branford had hoped to rejoin Wellington and fight the French after spending time in England recovering from a wound. Instead he’s asked to undertake a different kind of mission. Leo must join a French circus and help the owner move gold from Brussels to Portugal. The biggest stumbling block to the task is that he’s an Englishman and will stick out like a sore thumb on the trek across France. Leo’s proposed undercover identity pleases him even less then the mission. He’s to pose as the husband of the proprietress, Gabrielle Robichon.
Gabrielle Robichon has been running Cirque Equestre since the recent death of her father. The circus is known for its classically trained horses, and Gabrielle’s heart truly lies in training and working with them. But in war-torn France money is tight. When she is asked to once again transport gold across France, Gabrielle jumps at the chance to earn enough money to send her younger brother to school. In the past, her father was in charge of the circus, its inhabitants, and the dangerous and secret cargo they carried. But she is determined to keep everything running as smoothly as it did when her father was alive. If that means pretending Leo Standish is her new husband, then so be it.
Right there you have a lot of what I’ve always liked about Joan Wolf’s books. She takes too very disparate and strong-willed protagonists sets them on a course of forced intimacy and lets them move the story. One of the biggest pleasures in reading White Horses was watching the slow-building relationship between these two people who, except for circumstance, would never have met. There’s no instant love or obsession for either of them. Sure Leo notices how pretty Gabrielle is and she might think he has a great body, but they’re also two people doing very important jobs and at least at the beginning, they act like it. I loved watching them inch their way into knowing each other and then side-stepping into love. It made for a very nice change of pace.
If the focus had remained on the couple and the very large obstacles to any kind of permanent relationship between them, this would have been a thorough rave. But there was that gold. And there were human resources difficulties inherent in running a circus. By about mid-book these surrounding plots were taking up far too much time and the love story got short shrift. I liked that Gabrielle had a job and family responsibilities that meant something to her. Unlike many heroines she didn’t drop her day-to-day duties just to be with Leo. That said, there were a few too many scenes of Gabrielle giving some trouble-maker the benefit of the doubt. Sympathy is one thing, repetition is something else altogether. Additionally, the dangerous gold never produces much danger. The occasional search of their circus does not suspense make.
Plot points aside, Leo and Gabrielle were well worth rooting for. Oddly enough, even with all the padding that went into the plotting, I’d have liked for the book to be a bit longer. Not for the epilogue where babies have arrived and everyone is happy-happy, but to see how this very complex couple coped living in Leo’s world.