Sat, read, smiled. It’s a rare book that leaves me with so little to say, but Jo Beverly’s The Dragon’s Bride is a thoroughly satisfactory book that begins with fierce five-heart intensity and then stutters somewhere, slowing to a restrained and lesser finish.
Susan Kerslake is the illegitimate daughter of a squire’s sister and a smuggling kingpin. Raised by the squire and his wife, she is an avid entomologist who maintains her independence by working as housekeeper at Crag Wyvern, the estate of the recently deceased Earl of Wyvern. Despite her eccentricities, she detests the fact that her irregular parentage has made her a permanent outsider in the staid village of her birth.
Her brother, David, has no such problem. Thanks to their father’s recent capture and deportation, he has inherited the title and position of “Captain Drake,” chief of the smuggling gang that controls this part of England’s southern coast. However, financial need is driving him to undertake more and more smuggling operations - a risky business now that an incorruptible Preventive officer has been appointed to the area.
Thankfully, Susan has thought of a way to assuage David’s need to risk so many runs. Somewhere in Crag Wyvern lies a stash of gold given by Captain Drake to the late earl for his silence - a silence which the earl did not keep. The bargain thus broken, Susan figures the gold rightfully belongs to the Captain. All she must do is find it.
What she does not take into account is the sudden, untimely appearance of the new Earl of Wyvern. Con Somerford is not only dark, dashing, and dangerously melancholy about his recent experiences as a soldier at Waterloo, he’s also Susan’s childhood love. Eleven years ago, for fourteen blissful days, the two learned each other’s souls. The idyll abruptly ended when Susan learned that Con was not, at that time, in line for the earldom. Desperate not to make the same mistake as her mother - to surrender status for love -Susan cold-bloodedly spurned him.
Neither has forgotten her cruelty, or the uncanny intensity of their abbreviated passion. However, such volatile memories can be dangerous when carried by a tormented man who has committed himself to marry another, and a woman whose family loyalties inadvertently compel her to tempt the fire that lives between them when she would be wiser to flee…
It is always challenging to engage readers in a love affair whose passionate beginning was not formed before their eyes, but Ms. Beverly does this expertly. Initial interchanges between Susan and Con crackle with sexual and emotional intensity. Con’s quiet confidence and casual authority are the perfect answers to Susan’s exacting, focused energy. The first hundred pages race by with the magic ease of a story telling itself.
But a funny thing happens on the way to the foregone conclusion. Con splits apart, switching between passive aggression - say, sending a letter that commits him to marriage to another woman as a way to “immure” himself from Susan - and offensive action - smashing walls and seizing her for a kiss - so quickly and unpredictably that the remarkable clarity of character which electrifies his first interactions with Susan disappears. We know Susan very well, but we don’t quite know Con anymore, thus we can’t feel the rightness of them so clearly.
This is partly due to the book’s extraordinary temporal scope. Disregarding flashbacks, the story occurs over five days. At roughly seventy pages a day, no wonder Con starts to seem schizophrenic. The calendar doesn’t yield him the possibility of subtler transitions, even if the page count does. The effect can be rather disconcerting, and never more so than at the end, when one realizes these two have agreed to get married after a whopping nineteen days of intimacy, the bulk of it during the height of their adolescence. Ever wondered why “dog love” isn’t a saying? Because “puppy love” doesn’t usually grow up!
However, most of these doubts arise once the book has been finished and left to cool on the shelf for a day or two, which fact is the most convincing testament to the engaging plot, intriguing characters and ultimately enjoyable experience of reading The Dragon’s Bride.