As someone who enjoys stories of second-chance romance, I was intrigued by the synopsis of this book, which indicates that the central couple has been apart for six years. I settled in for a story of love re-kindled and forgiveness earned…which isn’t quite what I got.
Betraying Mercy begins very well indeed. Amber Lin expertly evokes an atmosphere of eerie menace as the newly minted Earl of Rochford returns to his family home full of grief, anger and guilt. His mother’s death is widely believed to have been suicide, but with no proof, William insisted upon her burial in the family crypt. When he discovers that her resting place has been defiled, he is furious, his wrath adding fuel to the fires of rage he already feels as the result of his guilt over not having done more to prevent her death. In his fury, he commits a heinous act – he shoots and kills the man responsible for tampering with her grave and then burning her remains. But this man – Jasper Lyndhurst – attempts to evade William’s retribution by threatening the life of his (Jasper’s) youngest daughter, so one could argue that William’s action is justifiable.
The girl he saves is the heroine’s younger sister. William and Mercy Lyndhurst more or less grew up together, but she is the daughter of a common farmer, and he is the son of an earl, so there was never any possibility of anything between them but friendship. But Mercy sees the darkness that is eating William up and determines to offer him solace in the one way she can think of – by going to his bed. At first, he rejects her, determined not to add to his list of sins committed that night. But Mercy persists, expecting nothing more than to perhaps become his mistress, which is why, in the morning, she is astonished when he rounds up a vicar and witnesses and marries her.
I was drawn in by the first quarter of the book, although I felt that there was perhaps a little too much that was left vague. I never felt as though I quite understood either of the characters’ motivations, but I decided that was probably a deliberate move on the part of the author, and that all would be revealed later.
Immediately after the impromptu wedding (which I question, because there was no mention of a Special License, and the banns had not been read), William rides away, and does not return.
Six years pass during which he pursues his business interests at sea. Every year upon his return to England, he enquires of his London solicitor as to Mercy’s situation, and every year, he is told that she is fine, and he goes back to sea. But on this particular occasion, the solicitor gives William a note which says that Mercy is in danger – and he heads home to find out what is happening.
In the intervening time, Mercy has re-invented herself as the Countess of Rochford. Gone is the bedraggled waif that William married and in her place is a cool, highly competent woman who has not only renovated herself and William’s home, but has also rejuvenated the local village. The novel is set in the 1780s, at a time when mechanisation was drawing many labourers to factories for the higher wages, leading to a neglect of the land and mass migration. When a new cotton factory is built nearby, Mercy sets up a business of her own to provide employment for their tenants and village inhabitants.
William returns to a cool reception. His wife is clearly not pleased to see him and wants him gone as soon as possible. She has no reason to want him there, and he has no reason to want to stay – all he does want to do is make sure she is safe and be on his way. But an incident at Mercy’s factory convinces William that whoever sent the note was right, and that he needs to stay to find out who is responsible and stop them.
For a fairly short novel, even by Category standards, there is quite a lot of plot in Betraying Mercy. But that means that there is no time for the development of a romance between the protagonists. We are told that they have thought about each other constantly while they were apart; we are told they are attracted to each other, but we are never really shown it. In fact, they spend more time apart than together, which is a major flaw in any romance. More time is spent in the workshop of the factory as Mercy tries to repair the damage resulting from the “accident”, or on discussions of the business and the implications for village life than on their relationship, or on any resolution of the questions raised in the earlier part of the book.
We are also asked to believe that Mercy, who, as the daughter of a poor farmer is unlikely to have received much of an education, if any, has, in the six years since William’s departure, acquired the skills to set up and run a business. And not only that, it seems that she has taught herself engineering as well. I’m afraid this is a bit too much of a stretch for my credulity.
If the story had continued in the way it had begun, I’d probably have given it a much higher grade, but unfortunately, the tone of the opening is never regained, and it ends up as rather a nondescript and not very romantic romance. The writing is good for the most part (although there are several glaring Americanisms used) but the storytelling is disjointed, with the book feeling like a series of snapshots rather than a cohesive narrative.
Ms. Lin has created a couple of intriguing characters who are both haunted in some way – she by her father’s violence and abuse, and he by his mother’s death and the fact that he allowed his anger to lead him to murder and to, as he thinks, debase a young woman he cared for. But they are not fully fleshed out, and the reader never gets to know them in anything but a superficial manner.
To sum up, Betraying Mercy feels like the bare bones of a potentially good story, but the author’s failure to put any meat on them leads to an ultimately unsatisfying read.