A Convenient Bride for the Soldier
Christine Merrill joins forces with three other Harlequin Historical authors to bring us a new series of four books under the title The Society of Wicked Gentlemen. The gentlemen in question are a group of friends of differing backgrounds who met at university and who now jointly own a rather scandalous and extremely popular club at which members of the ton can freely indulge their vices, whether their preference is for strong drink, high-stakes gaming, sexual peccadillos or a mixture of all three.
Mr. – formerly Major – Frederick Challenger, was, before he went to war, quite as ready as any of the club’s clientele to indulge in those very same vices. Coming from a family whose name is a byword for scandal, Fred’s way of dealing with the fact that his parents and siblings were known for their many excesses, affairs and public embarrassments was to out-debauch them all with his wild ways and scandalous behaviour. But now that’s all changed. A veteran of Waterloo, Fred discovered he preferred the organisation of military life to hedonism and he has turned his life around to become a sober, uptight and somewhat joyless businessman who now regards the sort of organised debauchery to be found at Vitium et Virtus (Vice and Virtue) as something almost mind-numbingly dull.
Georgiana Knight’s stepmother is absolutely desperate to get her step-daughter married off and out of her home, and is constantly pressuring her to accept the suit of Sir Nash Bowles, a relative of hers whom Georgiana very much dislikes. When Georgiana’s maid tells her that Bowles has a reputation worse than any rake, she decides she has to take steps to avoid marrying a lecher and comes up with a – rather silly, it has to be said – plan to expose his unsavoury activities by going to the notorious club of which he is a member, seeing what goes on for herself and then telling her father why she doesn’t want to marry him. It’s only when she finds herself in the middle of a darkened room surrounded by men eager to bid for the opportunity to deflower her that Georgiana realises her scheme might not have been such a good one after all.
When a masked but clearly furious man outbids everyone, disperses the crowd and then literally carries her out of the room, Georgiana doesn’t quite know whether to be afraid or annoyed. It’s only when he reveals his identity that she decides on annoyed; ever since Frederick Challenger refused an introduction to her one evening at Almack’s she’s had the feeling he’s forever finding fault with her.
Frederick is similarly irritated to discover the identity of his ‘purchase’. Ever since he overheard her stepmother describing him to Georgiana as eligible and rich, he has retreated behind a wall of ice and done his best to avoid her. Each time he has seen her, she is doing something outside the bounds of propriety, and given the reputation owned by his family, the last thing he needs is to be associated with a woman who can’t seem to abide by the rules of society. An association is, however, unavoidable when Sir Nash Bowles insists that he will ensure word gets around about Georgiana’s appearance at the club unless she marries him, leaving Frederick no alternative but to offer for her himself. He might not like the woman, but condemning her to a life with a pervert like Bowles is something he cannot bring himself to do.
Georgina recognises that she’s trapped between a rock and a hard place. Frederick Challenger wouldn’t have been her husband of choice, but he’s most definitely the lesser of two evils and she agrees to marry him after he makes it clear that theirs will be a marriage in name only and that they will live separate lives. When Georgiana greets this idea enthusiastically, Fred can’t help but be just a little put out – and wonders what on earth he’s doing, depriving himself of the only benefit he could gain from their union. Georgiana is lovely, vivacious and he’s strongly attracted to her, yet no matter how many times his friends tell him how lucky he is to have found such a beautiful, clever and delightful bride, and that she’s just the person to pull him out of the funk he’s been in since he returned from the Peninsula, all he sees is the potential for disaster and indiscretion.
It would be easy to see Fred simply as a stiff-necked, over-starched prig who is intent on maintaining the double standards so prevalent at the time the book is set. Because of this, it’s easy to understand why a woman like Georgiana – who has spent the last several years listening to the endless criticisms of her stepmother – would resent his attempts to dictate her behaviour and insist that she behave as a pattern-card of propriety. Yet through it all, he is somehow a sympathetic character, especially when his family circumstances are taken into account. He’s the only responsible adult in his family and desperately wants to make sure that his younger siblings don’t fall into the same patterns of behaviour as their elders. Because of this, he imposes a higher standard upon himself – and by extension, his wife – and has encased himself in a prison of his own making and become a victim of his own inflexibility.
So often in this sort of story – spirited heroine meets starchy hero – the heroine is childish and deliberately contrary, getting herself into stupid scrapes because she ignores good advice and is generally a pain in the arse. That isn’t the case here, and I really appreciated Ms. Merrill’s presentation of Georgiana as thoroughly likeable and not at all TSTL. She does make mistakes, but they are either the result of ignorance (such as when she goes shopping with Fred’s sister-in-law without knowing he wouldn’t have wanted it) or because of a situation created as a result of her stepmother’s dislike of her. Much of the time, Fred and Georgiana’s battle of wits is lively and amusing and the attraction between them is strong and well-developed so that by the time they finally hit the sheets, the sexual tension is so thick it could be cut with a knife. The addition of the physical dimension to their married life quickly dissipates a lot of the strain that has existed between them and they finally start to develop a better understanding of each other.
I enjoyed the book, although a couple of flaws have affected my final grade. Firstly, Fred’s unbending attitude towards Georgiana goes on for perhaps a bit too long, and it starts to seem that every time they reach a kind of understanding, something happens to push them back to square one. After a while this got frustrating and ultimately it leads to the second flaw in that the story is somewhat unbalanced. The final chapters and ending are very rushed, and I can’t help wishing that the author had spent more time on the resolution to the couple’s difficulties and their ILY moments, and less on setting up the conflict, which is very well established by the half way point and didn’t need to be hammered home to quite such an extent.
With those reservations expressed, however, A Convenient Bride for the Soldier is entertaining and the two central characters are engaging and well-written. I’m happy to give it a qualified recommendation.