The Misfit Marquess

 
The Bartered Bridegroom
by Teresa DesJardien
(Signet, $4.99, G) ISBN 0-451-19961-6
***
Lord Benjamin Whitbury meets the most unconventional Katherine Oakes when she comes, dressed in boy’s clothing, to bid farewell to her horse, which had been bought by Lord Benjamin. Benjamin, who was forced out of the navy in disgrace, has come to London to seek employment and possibly marry a woman whose dowry will help restore his fortunes.

Katherine has a talent in picking the winners at racehorses -- until her father put a stop to it. She now hopes to establish her own horse training facility with land she will inherit in a month’s time on her twenty-first birthday. Her father has brought Katherine to London for her first season in hopes that she will attract a suitable husband. However, Katherine has already contracted a secret engagement with Cyril Cullman. Cyril has also come to London where he has become a great social success and dubbed the First Beau. Katherine’s outspokenness and lack of feminine mannerisms have contributed to her social failure.

Cyril and Benjamin attend Katherine’s father’s card party. In a private wager at the end of the night, Cyril wins nearly every penny Benjamin owns, plus he forces Benjamin to become engaged to Katherine. Cyril realizes he can do a lot better than Katherine and her few acres, but wishes to retain her good opinion because he intends for her to become his mistress.

Benjamin reveals the terms of the wager to Katherine’s father, who insists that she become engaged to Benjamin. Katherine knows that a wager has been involved but does not know the details; her conclusions place the blame on Benjamin. It is settled that for one month they will present a mock engagement but at the end of that month Katherine can cry off. In return for her cooperation, Katherine enlists Benjamin’s efforts in readying her property for occupancy.

Over the following month Benjamin and Katherine will discover unexpected qualities in each other. Will they end their engagement as planned?

In this sequel to The Misfit Marquess, Benjamin is the brother of the earlier Regency’s hero, and the now-happily-married couple make a cameo appearance. The general plot outline is reminiscent of the story line of the much darker and more sensual The Dark Angel, one of my favorite Mary Balogh Regencies. In that book, Balogh’s hero has been disgraced by his rumored relationship with his stepmother.

I have serious reservations about the plausibility of Benjamin’s alleged misdeeds. During the Regency era, England was often at war with France. It is difficult to believe that any officer accused of smuggling naval supplies to the French wouldn’t find himself court-martialed for treason. Benjamin, of course, is far too honorable to do such a despicable thing, but his reasons for accepting blame and his subsequent actions strain credulity. Moreover, the resolution of this subplot is simply too quick and neat.

Cyril makes a satisfyingly slimy villain. Unfortunately, in story after story, supposedly intelligent heroines fall for scum like him, and the intelligent and intuitive Katherine is no exception. The forced engagement seemed unrealistically contrived. It would be more in character for Cyril to simply callously dump Katherine and moved on to richer prospects. With him out of the picture, of course, it would be less obvious how vastly superior Benjamin is.

The story’s most appealing aspect is how Benjamin slowly comes to realize that Katherine is more admirable and desirable than the type of woman he had thought he wanted. The reader can watch the gradual change in his thinking so that when he realizes he’s in love with her, it’s very believable. I just wish the rest of the story were equally convincing.

Readers who prefer those stories that grab them by the throat and pull them along until the climactic finish are likely to find The Bartered Bridegroom pretty tame stuff. On the other hand, readers who like a slower paced story with likeable characters where the good guys get their rightful reward and the villains get their just desserts at the end may want to check it out.

--Lesley Dunlap


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