His Chosen Bride by Alexandra Bassett
When Nathan Cantrell left the army he expected to come home to his happy childhood home, The Willows. Unfortunately he finds out that his father has left him a home mortgaged to the hilt by his next door neighbor Sir Harlan. Severely stressed by this turn of events Nathan decides a good dip in the river will do him good and it is there he meets a fascinating and provoking water nymph. When he goes to confront Sir Harlan over the debts, Harlan makes him an offer: marry one of his three daughters in exchange for cash and the releasing of the mortgages. Nathan is not pleased especially when he learns that Harlan's daughter's are Violet, the self-important widow of a marquess's heir, Abigail, the sickly and drab middle daughter, and Sophy, the flirt barely out of the schoolroom. But he is dumbstruck when he discovers that Abigail is in fact the water nymph from the pond! Abigail isn't too happy with this turn of events as she becomes convinced that Nathan is trying to seduce her sisters and believes that it is Nathan holding something over her father's head.
Nathan desperately wants to convince Abigail to marry him, but is terrified she'll find out about his deal with her father. Meanwhile Abigail has been using her "sickly" excuse as a means to stay home and write her gothic novels, which she publishes under a pen name and are quite well read. Things progress fairly nicely until Nathan comments on the Georgianna Harcourt "silly" novels. He tries to patch things up, but it is only a misunderstanding that makes Abigail believe they have a chance. She believes Nathan has written her a poem, but it was in fact written by Freddy for Sophy. When that's cleared up she is once again furious at him, but her father has gone and annoucned their engagement anyway. When she discovers the bargain Sir Harlan struck with Nathan Abigail runs off to London to stay with her Aunt. Nathan uses the opportunity to follow her and hit her aunt up for an investment in his wool-producing factory. Eventually Abigail realizes that she is punishing herself as well as Nathan by holding her grudge and as the two race to save her father's paecocks they're both able to admit that they're in love.
Bassett has only written one other book, "My Favorite Marquess," which takes place after this and features the top-lofty Violet finally meeting her peer, and the two are similar in many ways. The characters in "His Chosen Bride" are perfect: well-developed, fun, interesting, frustrating, and incredibly readable. Each of them by themselves is such a great character it makes scenes where out two main protagonists aren't even there seem like great reading. I loved Sir Harlan's bizarre obsession with birds, Violet and the butlers snobbery, Sophy's flirty ways, Freddy's attempts to become the next Lord Byron, and Aunt Augusta's crazy flightiness. The dialogue is beautifully written with some great banter, and while I know I complain about characters who seem to communicate only in banter and sparing, this is done very well and is mixed in with some real conversations. The mix-ups with the letter and then with Abigail's identity as Georgianna Harcourt were fun and entertaining and not at all drawn out to the point where they became more irritating than fun.
The only complaint I have with this book is the, almost, complete lack of steam. The scene at the beginning where the two meet while swimming makes it very obvious that Abigail and Nathan are VERY attracted to each other and definitely brings up hope that this will be a very steamy book, but alas it was not to be. There were a couple very brief kissing scenes and in the last two pages there is one even more brief sex scene that wasn't at all hot. The relationship was very realistically developed and I wish the author had fulfilled this part of their relationship as well as she did everything else between these two. The book wasn't as fast paced as many romance novels are these days, but I believe this is because the author spent more time developing all the characters and exploring their interactions and feelings for each other.
Rating: I absolutely loved this book and the lack of sex was the only bad thing I could think of as being less than perfect. Really wish the author would work on this. Also really wish the author finally gets around to publishing Sophy's story, although no word as of now as to when this will happen.