Claire Delacroix built her Bride Quest trilogy around three brothers and their individual attempts to find brides. In the third of these books, The Heiress, Rowan, the last unmarried of the three, attempts to win his brothers’ dare and marry the wealthiest heiress in Ireland before the Yule. The fact that Rowan lives in France and has no idea who the wealthiest heiress in Ireland might be does not deter him from racing off. Rowan, a true knight at heart, is constitutionally unable to resist a dare, which makes his life rather complicated, as you can imagine. The bride quest appeals to Rowan in a number of ways. It offers adventure, challenge, the chance to meet beautiful women, and a way to secure his future as he always hoped he would. As a bastard, Rowan can count on no inheritance of his own to secure his future and fund his playboy lifestyle. An heiress, he reasons, is the kind of woman who would allow him to continue his life, unfettered. Such a woman, independent in her own right, would make few demands upon Rowan beyond that he provide her with a few sons. And that service he feels more than able to provide. But when he meets Ibernia, as independent a woman as can be imagined (except for the small fact that she is a slave), all of his carefully held notions about how the world works are challenged.
Delacroix wastes no time throwing her hero and heroine together. We meet Rowan after crossing the English Channel. After suffering from debilitating seasickness, he is not anxious to board another ship, and so he takes his squire to a nearby inn in hopes of a hot meal. There he is targeted by a slavetrader who leads a stunning, lush, but filthy woman by a rope. Overcome by a sudden, unexplainable urge to help her, Rowan buys the woman, and by page 3 Ibernia and Rowan are already trading barbs and insults.
Although Ibernia promises at one point to tell Rowan the entire story of her enslavement, she never delivers more than brief outlines. Possibly Ibernia’s experiences as a slave are so horrific as to be out of place in a romance novel. Nonetheless, I felt the lack of a more detailed backstory here, particularly when she herself offered to deliver it. It is difficult to cast as the heroine of a romance a woman who has suffered from physical and sexual abuse, and these layers of Ibernia’s character do make her at once more interesting and less predictable than most romance heroines. But at the same time, much of Ibernia’s responses and explanations didn’t seem realistic. I wanted the details of her story to help me to believe.
The plot of The Heiress is unquestionably the weakest part of the book. Just as Rowan conveniently meets the slavetrader and conveniently decides to buy Ibernia within minutes of setting foot on English soil, Ibernia, conveniently, is Irish and can name the wealthiest Irish heiress, giving Rowan an object for his quest. In addition, a Venetian ship in port is just minutes from sailing to Dublin and although it is not a ship given to carrying passengers, the captain (conveniently) sells Rowan and his party passage. It almost goes without saying that the captain of the ship has been combing the seas for some word of Ibernia and her family, and that he does not have her best interests at heart. At the risk of giving away any key points, I must say that nothing about how the plot progressed from here on surprised me, although at times I was hard put to believe how everything unfolded. An improbable rescue of the sea captain from shipwreck had me rolling my eyes. I guessed immediately who the bad guys were, who the good guys were, and who Ibernia would turn out to be.
But if the tale suffers from its predictability and an unfortunate tendency on the part of the author to use the words “twas” and “naught” at every given opportunity, it also has moments of really strong writing. In the middle of the book, Delacroix cuts away to a scene focusing on Rowan’s father and stepmother. In this short but gripping scene she offers an unadulterated taste of the kind of writing that made her previous novels so popular. Here, there is strong characterization, great dialogue, the kind of writing that reaches right out and pulls you into the middle of the action and emotion and then returns you, somewhat dazed, to Rowan and Ibernia. At another point, Rowan loses his horse, the only thing to which he has formed an attachment that he can recognize as love. His solitary struggle over the loneliness, frustration and hollowing sorrow of his loss is one of the really fine places in the novel.
Rowan’s progress from the footloose and fancy free rake of page one to the man to whom Ibernia can trust herself and her family is wholly believable, primarily because Rowan has the instincts of responsibility from the beginning, Delacroix shows those instincts to the reader, and Ibernia recognizes them as well. Through Delacroix’s crafting of the story, his association with Ibernia and events in general allow Rowan to become more fully himself. This, ultimately is the inheritance Rowan receives from his heiress; it is a rich one arrived at with some difficulty, and the reader shares both the rewards and the frustrations of his quest.