I just finished The Bequest and, well, you’ll have to excuse me now, but I have to go take a long, hot bath. Soak in the water. Wash away all that whorehouse grime. Yuck. Candice Proctor’s first book, Night in Eden, examined the horrific conditions women faced as convicts in Regency-era England. The Bequest deals with the horrific conditions women faced as prostitutes in the mid-19th Century American West. I tremble to think what Ms. Proctor is going to tackle next, because this second book is a very sober and cheerless work indeed.
Gabrielle Antoine was raised as an orphan in a New Orleans convent. At the age of twenty, she receives a letter from one Jordan Hays telling her she has inherited a house in Colorado. Hoping to find out about her parentage, Gabrielle heads West only to find the house she has inherited is a brothel, and her late mother was the place’s high-priced madam, Celeste DuBois.
Jordan Hays was Celeste’s partner, and it was in his arms the beautiful whore died when she was murdered in the parlor of her own brothel. Celeste didn’t want her daughter to know anything about what she did for a living, but when Gabrielle shows up on the doorstep, Jordan has no choice but to tell her everything he knows about her mother.
Initially shocked at the idea she is illegitimate and that her mother was a “chippie,” Gabrielle struggles to come to terms with why Celeste abandoned her. And, what she is going to do with her newly-inherited brothel and its employees. A highly moral person, Gabrielle also has a backbone of steel. She feels an odd sort of indebtedness to these women, for it was the profits from their labors that kept her for fifteen years in the expensive convent. To repay them, Gabrielle wants to use her profits from the business to help find the whores a better life, then turn the grand building into a school. In the meantime, she finds herself attracted more and more to the stunningly handsome and seemingly cold and calculating gunman/gambler, Jordan Hays.
Jordan is a thoroughly tormented man, bent on seeking his own death. Having lost everyone in life he loved (his father was murdered, and his pregnant wife raped to death by drunken Union soldiers), the former Confederate officer and Texas Ranger is fiercely unwilling to ever love again. When he finds himself attracted to Gabrielle beyond his ability to withstand it, in a very emotional scene, Jordan tells her he wants her, and that he is going to take everything she has to give and then ride away and never look back. He even means it.
Doug Slaughter, the vilest whoremonger you’ll ever come across, wants Celeste’s Place, wants Gabrielle, and wants a lost gold mine even more, and he’ll do anything to get his utterly slimy paws on all of it. While Gabrielle and Jordan manage to thwart Slaughter’s every effort, when the villain comes to the brothel for a party, Jordan and Gabrielle make a really Stupid Move which leaves Jordan presumably dead, and puts Gabrielle directly into this creep’s hands. When at his mercy, what Slaughter does, and nearly does, to Gabrielle almost made me sick.
There’s nothing glamorous about prostitution and this story drives the point home page-after-page with graphic images and dialogue. Ms. Proctor is a skilled storyteller, has researched her subject well, and has created two very sympathetic characters in Gabrielle and Jordan. I cared about what happened to these people. The secondary characters, especially Sirena, are well-drawn also. The author delivers a very dark view of what drove (and may still drive) women into this base and demeaning profession, and the reasons they may choose to stay there even when they have a chance to escape the life.
While I appreciate the effort, for it is a true historical, the subject matter was not appealing in any way, and I have to wonder why the author chose to take on such a seamy topic. Written in the 19th Century, such a work might have brought about awareness and social reform. However, such a dark and somber examination now, detracts from the romance (this is supposed to be a Romance) and serves no purpose except for its own sake. When Gabrielle moves into the house, so do we; when she is surrounded day and night by the smell and sounds of tawdry, unloving sex, so are we. As a result, by the end of the book, I felt unclean. My next read is going to be something very, very light and frothy – to wash away all the dirt.
Would I recommend this book? Yes, but you ought to know beforehand what you’re getting in to; bring soap.