This short novel/novella is the second in Victoria Dahl’s Bartered Hearts series. I have not read the previous one, so this can be read as a standalone. I am an absolute sucker for a well written romance set in the American West, so I was thrilled to see an author I associate with contemporary romances try her hand at Westerns. While Harlot did not disappoint, there were a few small issues that kept this from reaching DIK status.
When Caleb Hightower’s widowed mother remarried the town banker, she thought she was bringing herself and her son up in the world socially, but the banker never took to his stepson and Caleb never quite entered the social strata to which his mother aspired. He still had to make his own way in the world without any help from his stepfather. Caleb fell in love with his childhood friend, Jessica Willoughby, but felt he was not good enough for her because, as the daughter of a doctor, Jessica was a part of the small Colorado town’s social elite. She was in love with Caleb and wanted to marry him, regardless of his prospects, but he was too proud to marry her without enough money to keep her in the style she to which she was accustomed. They compromised on their future, with Caleb leaving Colorado for the gold mines of California to make his fortune. Jessica writes faithfully to Caleb while he is away, waiting for him to return and marry her. Then tragedy strikes when Jessica’s father dies and she learns he was deeply in debt. Frantic, she writes to Caleb and begs him to come home. Caleb doesn’t answer and his stepfather finally informs Jessica that Caleb has found another woman to marry.
Caleb has had one constant in his life for a number of years. He is in love with and wants to marry Jessica Willoughby. After two years of busting his backside trying to make enough money for a future with her, he is coming home with much on his mind. Jessica’s letters have stopped and he is afraid she has found someone else. When he gets home and asks about her, he discovers something even worse. Jessica has moved out of her father’s big house in town and into what everyone around knows to be a harlot’s house out in the country. Caleb is hurt and furious that the love of his life and his future bride became a whore after her father died instead of turning to her fiancé for help. Thoughts of Jessica and their future were all that kept him going during the past gruelling years and now everything he hoped for seems sullied and unimportant. What is the point of working so hard if he can no longer have his dream? Caleb decides if he can no longer have that dream, at least he can have Jessica. If she is now a harlot, at least he has the money to pay for her services.
For a short novel – or long novella – this story packs a punch. There is not a lot of space for backstory and Victoria Dahl does an admirable job of bringing the reader up to speed on Jessica and Caleb’s story with a small word count. Tight prose is evident throughout and the writing in this story is actually pretty amazing. Primary and secondary characters are pretty well fleshed out for a story that weighs in at less than 200 pages. The sense of a western setting is palpable, and I could almost taste the dust on my tongue. It is amazing how few words it actually takes to set a scene in the mind of a reader.
My problem with this story is the hero (and the heroine to a lesser degree). I have an issue with hypocrites and the sexual double standard in general and it was fully in play in this story. Caleb doesn’t wait for Jessica’s explanation before rushing to judgment, and instead of just leaving her alone and leaving town, he decides to punish her. While this reaction is pretty realistic, it also makes him seem petty and vindictive. That and his judgment are pretty huge obstacles to overcome. The author does overcome them, but it almost comes too late. The heroine is definitely portrayed as a survivor and I suppos letting some things happen is one way of surviving; but the way Jessica just takes Caleb’s abuse is a bit grating. Her character is also redeemed in the end, so the HEA was believable and my last thought as the story closed was to wonder what would happen to them next. If I am clamoring for more of their story, then the author has created a winner. Now I need to go back and read the first book in this erotic series.