The Marriage Bargain
by Michelle McMaster
(Leisure, $4.99, PG) ISBN 0-29398-00299-5
Isobel Hampton is the sole heiress to her father’s estate and fortune. After her parents’ death, Sir Harry Lennox informs her that her father wanted her to marry him. Isobel tells him that she does not want to marry him specifically and in general will not marry at all until a year of mourning has passed. A year later Sir Harry returns and murders Isobel’s guardian in her hearing when he refuses Sir Harry permission to marry her. Sir Harry tries to force Isobel; she hits him and flees.

After getting thrown out of a London tavern, Lord Beckett Thornly, Viscount Thornly, and his friend Alfred find an unconscious, scantily clad young lovely under rubbish in an alley. (How she got there in such a condition is never fully explained.) Beckett can’t merely leave her there so they take her to his house. The next morning Beckett and the young woman (now completely undressed) are discovered together in his bed by his mother (who promptly faints) and his solicitor who is there to inform him that he may be the heir to an earldom. His uncle’s will, however, stipulates that whoever inherits must marry or else the title will pass to a cousin so Beckett must marry immediately or lose the title. Apparently any female will do, and one is under his roof at the present moment.

Isobel has reason to welcome the obscurity she’ll attain as the Countess of Ravenwood. (I’m not quite certain how she believed that marriage to a peer would diminish her visibility.) She believes that once she’s married she’ll be safe from Sir Harry’s intrigues; she accepts Beckett’s proposal without revealing her origins or her fears. The villainous Sir Harry, however, has perseverance down to an art. In practically no time he’s tracked her down and corners her at a society ball.

He informs her that marriage to an earl will not save her - he’s arranged with Lord Palmerston, the chief justice, for her to be arrested for her guardian’s murder. The earl will have the marriage annulled, and Palmerston will turn her over to Sir Harry. Isobel in typical fashion takes off again, but Beckett soon finds her. When he hears her tale, he realizes that she truly is in jeopardy and vows to protect her. He arranges for them to sail to Barbados in secrecy while Alfred remains in England seeking evidence that will prove the identity of the real murderer.

But Sir Harry is the Energizer Bunny of villains. He just keeps going and going and going. More perils await Beckett and Isobel in the Caribbean.

The plot of The Marriage Bargain doesn’t suffer from a lack of action. In fact, it proceeds at breakneck speed in places. Some of the character’s reactions - such as Beckett’s immediate decision to flee in secrecy to Barbados - seem hasty and ill-advised. After all, Sir Harry’s not the only one with friends in high places. Why doesn’t Beckett use a few of his aristocratic contacts? In spite of all that activity, the story frequently seems to be going nowhere. There’s always time to chat about their various pets (and they have a lot) and quaint native customs. The romance element is frequently overwhelmed by this frenzy of activity. The forced intimacy of life on-board ship and at the Barbados plantation injects a little sexual tension, but before long things are heating up again and they’re furiously dashing to some other place. It’s all pretty exhausting and not very romantic.

Another aspect of the book that gets overwhelmed by the hopscotching story line is character development. None of the characters are well developed. Beckett’s titled and rich, Isobel’s beautiful (she does display a little delightful spunk in a confrontation with Beckett’s bitchy former fiancée), and Sir Harry’s bad to the bone. The other characters are merely names.

There are some implausible situations in this book. Beckett is informed by his solicitor (who should know better) that his uncle’s will (which would have been drawn up by another solicitor who should have known better) premises his inheriting the title on his being married at the time. Wills can set conditions for the inheriting of personal property but not for title succession.

Secondly, when Beckett proposes marriage to Isobel, he asserts that he has no interest in love, that they will live separately, and that their marriage will be in name only then two pages later states that he hopes there will someday be children. Do English aristocrats have children some way I don’t know about? Maybe he can mail it in.

Furthermore, the story implies that the Caribbean was positively teeming with pirates when Beckett and Isobel were there. The Golden Age of Piracy ended nearly a century before the regency-era setting of this story. While there were a few pirates lurking around (such as Jean Lafitte operating out of New Orleans) during this time period, the yo-ho-ho days of the jolly roger had mostly heaved off into the annals of history.

The writing style exhibits occasional glimpses of talent. “He stared down at her with glowing blue eyes, and all at once Isobel knew why moths flew into the flame.” But there simply aren’t enough such glimpses to overcome the book’s many weaknesses.

--Lesley Dunlap

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