The Bridegroom is a pretty good read, but not as good as it could have been, not as good as it should have been. An intense romance between a revenge-driven hero and an ice princess suffers somewhat from a secondary romance that, while involving on its own, suffers somewhat from its own clichéd conflict.
The bridegroom is Clayton Carlisle, a man who lost everything a dozen years earlier when he was convicted of crimes he did not commit. As a result of his conviction, he lost his wife and child and his lands, and was sent into exile in Australia. Throughout his time in exile, he became a profiteer, and nursed revenge against the man he held responsible for his losses – the Duke of Blackthorne. What better way to take the ultimate revenge than to take away the beloved daughter of his enemy just as he had lost his own love?
Regina (Reggie) Wharton is beautiful, but is known as the Ice Princess by the ton. No man has intrigued her until she met Clayton, even though he very nearly gave her the direct cut when they met at a ball. After that, he courts her, treats her well, and she begins to fall in love with him. In fact, she would have agreed to marry him readily had he not kidnapped her and forced her into marriage.
The kidnapping of Reggie is a small flaw in the first part of The Bridegroom. Clayton has two of his crew accost Reggie and take her to a brothel, where she is drugged. He then appears on the scene, “buys” her from the madam, and “rescues” her to his ship, where they are married. The kidnapping itself was not a problem, but the brothel interlude was unnecessary. While likely written to illustrate how cold-blooded Clayton had become in achieving his revenge, the author showed this in other and better ways throughout the book.
There are many things I thoroughly enjoyed in this book. Clayton indeed is cruel in his vengeful mode, but there were enough glimpses of his humanity to redeem him. While shown most often in his conversations with his shipmate and friend Pegg, who realizes early on that Reggie is worthy of love and not as a tool of revenge, even Reggie is the occasional recipient of a nice moment from her husband.
As Clayton watches Reggie do all she can to be a good wife, he slowly comes to realize her worth, though his stubbornness nearly causes him to lose her for good. His attempts to humiliate her, to hurt her as her father mistakenly hurt him, are emotional. He plans to treat her like a whore, get his heir, then take his heir and leave her. Reggie is devastated when she learns the truth about her marriage, but her stalwart and dignified efforts to make her marriage work are touching. When Clayton finally realizes that what he has found is far more than the revenge he sought, the reader will have found his journey well worth the effort.
The parts of the book which focused on Clayton and Reggie were strong enough to stand on their own, but author Johnston, as she tends to do, included a secondary storyline involving Reggie’s twin sister Rebecca, Rebecca’s ne’er-do-well husband, and Mick O’Malley, the Duke’s steward. The author touched on some heavy issues in this secondary storyline, which threatened at times to overtake the primary story. While that alone was not a major flaw, the author used a terribly over-done plot device to add even more drama. The plot device was the discovery that Mick was not the commoner all had thought him to be. While the revelation advanced the secondary storyline, it was overwrought and melodramatic. What’s more, wouldn’t it be nice to have a commoner actually remain a commoner in a romance?
It’s been quite awhile since I shed a tear while reading a romance, and while not exactly a two-hanky read, the intensity of emotion The Bridegroom inspired was strong. The ending chapters, of discovery, forgiveness, and true love, were particularly well done. Back in 1996 I reviewed Captive for The Romance Reader and said it was a good “starter” romance – the kind of book you’d want to give to someone you wanted to introduce to the genre. I enjoyed the secondary romance more in that book than in this one, but, overall, the main romance in The Bridegroom is strong enough to hold its own.