Penelope Blayne is traveling through Shropshire to Rockbourne Crest, where she will meet up with her long-lost husband, Jason. The problem is, she hasn’t seen Jason in ten years, not since they wed in haste in Constantinople, when Penny was sixteen and Jason twenty-one. Penny, who lived and traveled with her adventurous Aunt Cassandra, had been kidnapped into a harem, trained for a month as an odalisque, and given the name Gulbeyaz. In order to secure her release, Jason had to marry her. Their wedding night was an embarrassment to him, as he, um, rushed the actual event and left Penny a virgin. When Penny was returned to her aunt, Jason quickly left the country.
Aunt Cass is now gone, and Penny can’t touch her trust until the age of thirty. To compound this outrage, Jason, a family friend of Aunt Cassandra, is the executor and has full control of the money. Penny plans to ask him for an annulment and a cottage in a quiet village where she can live in peace. No more traveling. Jason, however, has other plans, especially once he spills the beans that he’s actually a married man.
Penny’s arrival could hardly come at a worse time. A raucous party in underway at Rockbourne Crest, Jason’s possessive mistress is in attendance, and most of the guests are drunk. Jason manages to send them away the next day, but he has his hands full trying to convince Penny to make their marriage a reality. And where is the lovely, sensuous girl who captivated him ten years ago? Is she still lurking under the stiff, proper exterior of Penny Blayne Lisbourne, the new Countess of Rocksley?
Not that Jason sticks around to find out. He’s a good example of a hero that knows what he wants (maybe) but has no idea what to do with it when it falls into his lap (if he even recognizes it). So he leaves Penny in the country and takes off for London. Jason’s dithering is the main conflict in this story, and it didn’t work for long. Penny is put into the position of having to pursue the very man who insisted they stay married when all she wanted was her freedom. When she pulls out her “Gulbeyaz” act, Jason decides maybe he is interested, after all. Of course, by now she’s in love with him again, but not sure he’ll ever return her feelings if she’s just Penny. Watching these two chase each other back and forth felt rather pointless, as though the story had lost its focus.
The harem aspect of the story was interesting, and to the author’s credit, was as informative as it was entertaining. Readers will sense that a great deal of research went into this part of the story, and it shows. Penny, rootless and frustrated with her lack of options, is a wonderful heroine. Finally, finally, she’s free to choose a life of peace and quiet, rather than exhausting travel – except she’s not free, after all. Jason controls her money and her life, basically. Her simmering resentment, tempered by her own admission that he’s as attractive as ever, is particularly well done.
Jason makes less of an impact, and when he does, it’s not always favorable. He always knew Penny would turn up one day, so he’s spent the intervening years living the life of a rakehell. Now here she is, and since he’s already let the cat out of the bag that Penny is his wife, they might as well stay married. And of course the mistress has to go. But now that he has Penny, he has no idea what to do with her, so he runs. To be honest, he came across as immature, rather than conflicted. Penny, however, is going to force him to grow up if he wants to keep her.
Kudos to Ms. Bancroft for including a unique element in a standard Regency tale. The Harem Bride is entertaining and informative, something not often said about today’s Regencies. If you haven’t read a Regency in a while, this one’s a good bet.