Miss Bradshaw's Bought Betrothal
Miss Bradshaw’s Bought Betrothal offers a fresh take on the classic Cinderella fairy tale. By giving the heroine a fuller backstory, providing her with the means to secure her own happiness with or without a prince, and allowing her to subvert the influence of her evil stepmother (and stepsisters), Ms. Heath twists the traditional version in small but satisfying ways. I liked it very much, though parts of it, especially the villains, are underdeveloped. Fortunately, the principals don’t suffer the same fate! The romance is believable, sweet and appropriate for the circumstances in which our lovers find themselves.
Our Cinderella is Miss Evelyn – Evie – Bradshaw. She’s announced her engagement to the dissolute Fergus Matlock, third Marquis of Stanford, and is shortly to travel to his Yorkshire estate with him to plan the wedding. Readers quickly discover this isn’t a love match – it’s an escape plan. Due to circumstances beyond her control, the death of her beloved mother and then father, Evie has spent the past decade playing nursemaid. Since her father’s passing, she’s lived in the shadow of her money-grubbing, manipulative stepmother and stepsisters, tolerating their constant abuse and criticisms. But she’s had enough. The sole beneficiary of her father’s estate, Evie has a fortune at her disposal and a plan in place to finally live her own life as far from her spiteful stepmother as possible. She’s paid the Marquis to pose as her fiancé and despite her stepmother’s best efforts to dissuade her from this path, Evie is leaving London. She actually has no intention of marrying the odious Marquis, but she’ll inform her stepmother of that fact once she’s established herself in a home of her own far away in the north of England. In a letter. Soon. Probably. Maybe. Did I mention Evie is a bit of a doormat when it comes to her stepmother?
As promised, the Marquis delivers Evie to Stanford House in Yorkshire, accepts a partial payment from her and departs for the local inn leaving Evie (and her chaperone, her fairy godmother/elderly aunt) alone at last. Evie is ecstatic – she’s escaped, her step mother is none the wiser, and Stanford House is more than she hoped for when Fergus agreed to her plan. Unfortunately, Evie’s happiness is short lived. Wandering late at night through the house, she’s surprised by Fergus whilst standing in the library enjoying the warmth of the fire. But her visitor isn’t the Marquis – it’s his identical twin brother, Finnegan Matlock. And this isn’t Stanford House, it’s Matlock House. And it belongs to Finn.
Finn Matlock is surly, grumpy and antisocial. Since the death of his beloved wife three years ago, he’s avoided the outside world and occupied himself with the business of running his estate and no one has ever questioned his self-imposed solitude. When he discovers who Evie is and why she’s in his home, he makes it perfectly clear she cannot stay and that she’s a fool for marrying his brother. Evie, thrown by this unexpected complication (but not surprised by her fiancé’s perfidy), doesn’t back down in the face of his rudeness. Determined never to be cowed by anyone again, Evie insists she will speak to Fergus in the morning and shortly relocate to Stanford House (despite Finn’s dire warnings that it’s uninhabitable). The revelation that Fergus is the dissolute, reprehensible rake he’s reputed to be shakes Evie’s composure but doesn’t deter her from her plans. Finn be damned, she isn’t breaking her engagement and she isn’t leaving Yorkshire. When she marches out of the library, head held high, Finn senses change is afoot.
Since the moment he saw spotted Evie framed in the firelight of the library, Finn feels an unwelcome attraction to her. His repeated, rude attempts to dissuade her from her plans to marry his brother (whom he hates), remove her from his household, and his regular criticism of the ugly gowns she wears each day (a legacy of her stepmother’s interference over her wardrobe), seem to fall on deaf ears. Evie appears immune to his not-so-veiled attempts to get her to leave. He finds himself admiring his tough, stubborn houseguest and though he’d never admit it, he begins to look forward to seeing her. Though Finn resists his attraction to Evie out of a misplaced sense of guilt over his wife’s death, it isn’t long before Evie consumes his mind and heart.
Evie falls in love with Yorkshire and the freedom she experiences once she’s finally far away from her stepmother. Determined to follow her plan, albeit from Matlock House instead of Stanford House, she makes inquiries into acquiring a home of her own, spends time wandering the estate (often barefoot), visits the dressmaker and finds herself looking forward to breakfast with her grumpy host every morning. Evie likes the way Finn challenges her and the way she feels when she spends time him. When he’s thrown from his horse and injured, Evie capably resumes the role as nursemaid and forces Finn to accept her help. Despite her attempts to resist her attraction to Finn, and his attempts to keep Evie at arms length, they fall for each other.
Once Evie reaches Yorkshire, ditches her dowdy London dresses, and spends time in Finn’s company, she blossoms. Finn, the not-so-charming prince of this story, similarly transforms in the face of his attraction to Evie. Unwilling to play doormat to Finn or anyone else for that matter, Evie never backs down when he lashes out or tries to push her away, and Finn loves seeing Evie assert herself. Evie, as the Cinderella of this story, is a nice warts-and-all reimagining of the oh-so-perfect fairy princess. She’s been a doormat all her adult life, but given a taste of freedom, she finds her backbone and learns to love herself. Though Finn is no prince charming, he’s a good match for her. A gentleman to his core, his amused and amusing responses – he’s mostly bark and no bite – and tender and protective instincts, provide a safe harbor for Evie to rediscover herself. An angry exchange wherein Evie finally admits she never planned to marry Fergus, finally leads to a passionate kiss and though confusion and frustration follow (on both sides), a surprise visit from her stepmother and stepsisters, and then Fergus, force Evie and Finn to team up in order to forge a future together. An impromptu tumble in the meadow cements their relationship – and though I enjoyed this glimpse into the passion between Evie and Finn, I wish there were a few more romantic scenes sprinkled throughout the second half.
Ms. Heath does a great job developing the principals, but I wish she had similarly developed the secondary characters. Hyacinth Bradshaw is awful to listen to, but nothing she does is all that reprehensible and in the end, after one brief confrontation, Evie banishes her from Matlock House – though she never actually cuts her off or punishes her in any significant or painful way. Fergus, Marquis of Stanford, the other villain of the story is similarly underdeveloped. How and why did he become such a dissolute scoundrel? Through a late confrontation with Finn we learn there was some family conflict, but enough to cause Fergus to become such a vile, selfish prig? I’m not sure I bought it.
Problems with the villains of this story aside, Miss Bradshaw’s Bought Betrothal is a whimsical and enjoyable twist on a classic fairytale. I liked almost everything about it and look forward to reading more from Ms. Heath in the future.