Itís a shame when a stylish, classy author who really knows her stuff has to depend on tired plot points to move a story along. Itís even more disappointing when the book starts with such an original premise as The Bartered Bride. Never fear, Putney fans, this book isnít a waste of your time, but it may not rank in your top ten of this authorís works.
Gavin Elliott, a half-American merchant trader, puts in at the South Seas island of Maduri on his final voyage. Gavin is heading to London to establish a new branch of his shipping business. The despotic ruler, Sultan Kasan, tries to tempt Gavin into becoming his trading partner by promising great wealth, but Gavin turns him down. Then Gavin witnesses a furor in the slave market of the city, and he is astonished to see an obviously European woman being sold on the auction block.
Alexandra Warren, a widow with a young daughter, was herself on her way home to England after years living in Sydney. Maduri pirates attacked her ship and she ended up separated from her child and sold into slavery. Alexandra has endured six months of brutal treatment, including rape. When she locks eyes with a blond man in the slave market, he seems to understand her desperation. Gavin tries to purchase Alex, but the sultan refuses. Gavin, driven to try and help this woman, makes a wager with the sultan. Five throws of the 12-sided Maduri dice; five difficult challenges. If Gavin completes them all, the woman is his. If he fails, Gavin will work for the sultan for ten years.
The first four challenges are accomplished, but the fifth - Worshipping the Goddess - requires Gavin and Alex to have sexual relations, the one thing Alex has already suffered most. Alex, desperate to regain her freedom and find her child, orders Gavin to comply. Reunited with her daughter and on her way back to England, Alex realizes she is pregnant, and though she knows the child is probably not Gavinís, she agrees to marry him to give the child a name. Both Gavin and Alex are in for a few surprises when they reach England and find out more about each otherís true identity. Meanwhile, the bond between them grows stronger every day.
Much of this story involves Alexís inability to share any sort of physical intimacy with Gavin, much as she wants to. His slow and patient wooing has a lovely, heated gentleness to it, and Ms. Putney makes it realistic by placing a few rocks - no, boulders - in the road to happiness. No magic solutions here - just patience. And as Gavin and Alex come closer to their goal, the sexual tension between them builds to a fever pitch.
A few characters from previous books make appearances, and Troth from The China Bride has an important role to play in helping Alex build confidence and some personal power. The idea of helping Alex feel she is in control of her life again is a theme throughout the story, and itís this very laudable aspect that causes the leads to do something silly as the climax is being set up. Alex and Gavin are trapped in one of the oldest plot clichťs in romance. Fully the last quarter of the book rests on one idiotic decision that readers will see coming a mile away, and that felt absolutely false to Gavinís character in particular.
Which is a shame, because up to tthat point, both Gavin and Alex were quite intriguing. Gavin, with a past history of being shunned by his English relatives, is almost comical when he finds out he canít escape his heritage after all. Alex may or may not strike readers as being in a bit of denial. Sheís almost too stoic; a good screaming fit complete with smashing of china, furniture, anything to vent her rage at her circumstances, would have felt appropriate here.
The Bartered Bride starts off like a house afire and ends a bit more like a campfire. One you canít take your eyes from; the other is all too familiar to many. Ms. Putneyís elegant prose and sure touch with the sexual tension guarantee a good read. But I canít honestly say itís a great one. At the hardcover price, you may want to head for your local library.