After reading Kat Martin’s Royal’s Bride, a 2009 book recently republished by the upscale Harlequin imprint Mira Books, I had two thoughts. First, this is great, and second, this wonderful mix of melodrama, passion, and realism seems familiar. That’s because I read another Martin, Heartless, about a year and half ago, and loved it too.
The story opens in 1854. The three sons (a trilogy, of course) of the Duke of Bransford have gathered at his death-bed. The estate has fallen on hard times, and the Duke has arranged for his oldest son, Royal, to marry Jocelyn. Jocelyn’s family has money, and by marrying him she’ll become a duchess.
Royal’s been out of the country for a decade, after looking after the family holdings in Barbados, and is reluctant to marry a woman he’s never met. But when he rescues her from a carriage accident on the way to his castle, it’s love at first sight. Unfortunately, the lady in the carriage is not his intended. Lily is a poor cousin and good friend of Jocelyn’s, living with Jocelyn’s family and sent early to prepare everything for the rather fussy Jocelyn.
Lily is technically a lady, in the same class as Jocelyn, but after the death of her parents she spent some time among the poor. Though she’s not opposed to marriage, her goal is to open a hat shop, and support herself. Royal admires this, establishing himself as a modern progressive hero. He is no stranger to improving oneself through industry. He desperately needs Jocelyn’s money, as his late father incurred large debts under odd circumstances, but he’s also engaged in projects such as starting up a brewery.
Thus the triangle is established – Royal must marry Jocelyn, but loves Lily. Lily loves Royal, but knows it can never be. And Jocelyn wants her title. Then the plot thickens: Jocelyn can tell Royal has little interest in her, and begins an affair with Christopher. She reasons, quite logically to my mind, that men sleep around before marriage, and even have mistresses, so why shouldn’t she have a little fun, before and after her marriage, especially since her future husband seems uninterested in her. And Lily, aware of Jocelyn’s activities with Christopher, feels less guilty than she otherwise would about time with Royal, but still keeps her activities secret from Jocelyn, assuming that the arranged marriage will go ahead.
Meanwhile, Royal learns that his father was defrauded by a con artist, and while no legal action can be taken against him, Lily has memories of cons, and an uncle with connections among less respectable folks. A scam the scammer plot unfolds while our couples try to sort out their relationships. The possibility of Royal getting back some of his father’s lost money might free him to marry Lily, but Jocelyn wants her title, and while Chris enjoys her company, he does not want to marry her, as he cannot give her what she wants.
The women are strong and determined characters, and Martin does a great job of making the ambitious Jocelyn both sympathetic and unpleasant. The men are decent, and roguish without being repulsive. The plot nicely addresses questions like why now (often unanswered when a couple suddenly come together), and backs up the meet cute with solid reasons for our couple to be attracted to each other.
The settings move from society balls to grimy taverns, and every single plot thread is tied up in a neat ribbon, complete with an unnecessary epilogue that sets up the next story. That’s excessive, but tolerable. It’s a fun, fast-paced read that seems shorter than its 400 pages, probably due to the multiple sources of suspense, and having two couples doubles the opportunity for delicious and mostly scandalous steamy scenes.