The Scoundrel's Bartered Bride by Virginia Heath
Lady Lydia Barton is getting married… to the highest bidder for her hand. Her father is desperate for a quick influx of cash to pay his debts, and his daughter’s hand in marriage is a valuable asset. Lydia’s opinion on the matter is not sought. The front runner is an old, piggish Marquess who horrifies her, but he’s pipped at the post by a man who might be worse, Owen Wolfe. Owen and Lydia have a history of the worst sort… she was sixteen and he eighteen when he was caught stealing her mother’s jewels, convicted and shipped off to Australia. Now he’s back, inexplicably successful and wealthy, running an exclusive gentlemen’s club.
Owen does come across, at times, a bit too good to be true. Considering the horrors he’s endured, he’s really astoundingly chill about getting his revenge. I know I’d be holding a grudge, but he doesn’t really seem all that worried about anything except Lydia knowing he was innocent. There was a vast class divide them back then which is now bridged by his having money and her father needing it, but there’s a bit of a frustrating lack of explanation as to just how Owen managed to learn to move pretty seamlessly in high society. I really enjoyed his friendship with Randolph, a major side character who has dwarfism. Married to a normal woman and with 3 (later 4) kids, Randolph is a charming breath of fresh air, and it’s nice to see a dwarf character portrayed as a romantic hero in his own right, even as a side story.
Although this book looks as though the conflict is going to be internal between the protagonists, it’s actually the external forces which threaten their happiness the most, and the exploration of these makes for an intriguing story. I admit I saw the villain reveal coming a mile off, but then there were a very limited number of potential candidates, and it still carried a big emotional impact for Lydia when she discovered the depth of betrayal.
This is a thoroughly enjoyable read from a top-notch author who really knows how to do her research. The description of the prison hulks and the life of a convict in Port Jackson, while not dwelled on, were gut-wrenching, and one can only imagine the horrors that so many endured. I very much enjoyed this and I’m happy to give it five stars.
Disclaimer: I received a review copy of this title via Rachel’s Random Resources.