Whether or not you take the bet on Laura Parker’s The Gamble depends on how tortured and difficult to love you like your heroes. Because Viscount Darlington, scarred both inside and out by a brutal father, is about as tortured and difficult to love as a hero can get. The book opens when he kills a man in a duel, then turns around and has sex in the bushes with the man’s mistress.
Sabrina Lyndsey, on the other hand, is a merchant-class heroine who will do anything to save her half-brother Kit from the evil clutches of her uncle, the pious rotter Robert McDonnell. McDonnell has sent Kit to Scotland, where the cold and damp will surely kill the fragile boy – at least he’s hoping it will. With Kit out of the way, any claims he might make on Sabrina’s fortune will be eliminated, and McDonnell can marry her off to any old fuddy duddy and still keep his hands in her pocket.
Sabrina and the Viscount meet under less than auspicious circumstances – the rakish rogue robs her coach and she mistakes him for infamous highwayman Black Jack Law. He does nothing to discourage her mistake, and decides to liven things up with a heated kiss. Their lives are forever changed in ways neither can imagine, especially after she shoots him with his own gun.
They meet again in Bath, and he decides to ruin her for the fun of it. His plan becomes more titillating when he realizes she doesn’t recognize him, although his unusual eye color should have given him away.
Sabrina needs money to finance her journey to Scotland to rescue Kit and must rely on Jack, first to teach her to gamble, and then to assist her on the actual journey. He refuses to believe her altruistic reason for the journey – he’s never experienced kindness in his life. But as their lives become entwined, Sabrina gets under his skin. He decides he’ll repay her in spite for each kindness or loving thing she does, but eventually he is worn down by her loving goodness.
That’s not to say Sabrina is some sort of saint. She’s masqueraded as a man, planned to cheat at cards, and killed a man who threatened those she loves. But the author plays these two off each other, all the while using their class differences cleverly. While their relationship feels adversarial nearly to the end, the reader knows they’ve come to love each other and will make any sacrifice necessary to save the other, even if it means forsaking their being together. Fear not, however, there is a happy ending, albeit an unusual one.
There is a secondary romance/sub-plot that is intricately tied together with Sabrina and Jack’s story, and, for me, this is where the book failed. The characters of Charlotte and Randall are simply too unlikable to rouse much sympathy from the reader. Charlotte is a spoiled and petulant young woman. For much of the book, Jack’s few moments of goodness are predicated on his feelings that Charlotte is some sort of paragon. Based on her actions, this would seem to require too much suspension of disbelief. As for Randall, well, he acted like a man – taking a mistress within the first year of his marriage, and believing all too readily that he is a cuckold. It is their “big misunderstanding”, while crucial to the plotting, that turned this book from a recommended read to a merely average one.