The Marriage Wager
I think you’re really going to enjoy The Marriage Wager. It is one of the finest marriage of convenience stories I’ve read, and features, as do many historicals these days, a widowed and adult heroine as opposed to a nubile teenager.
This is the Regency-era historical of Lady Emma Tarrant, whose disastrous elopement to a gambling and selfish man had caused her family to disown her years ago. A year after the death of her husband, she returns from the Continent with Ferik, a middle-eastern companion who acts as her bodyguard. While some politically correct readers might be offended by Ferik’s statements, actions, and thoughts, most readers will be delighted by his humorous actions and hopes to find a wife with “a big dowry and nice, firm bottom” – or was it a nice dowry and big bottom? Either way, he’s a fun character who genuinely cares for Lady Emma.
Lady Emma meets up with our hero, Lord Colin Wareham, after he has returned from eight years of war, battling for His Majesty and seeing all sorts of horrors that come with battle. In an effort to “save” a young man who has gambled with Colin and lost, Emma, who knows what the downside of gambling can bring, wagers with Colin – the young man’s vowels if she wins, a night with Colin if she loses.
The wager has unexpected consequences, and the two are married. Although each feels more for the other than their business-like arrangement would indicate, their life-experiences don’t allow for trust . Little by little, however, each begins to breach the others’ defenses. Colin shows Emma that physical intimacy can be wondrous and that not all men are cut of the same cloth. Emma shows Colin she can understand his nightmares and that not all women are mindless chits.
The trust issue, as in so many romances, becomes the sticking point here as well. Colin’s desire to have a “normal” and uneventful life becomes so important to Emma that she cannot go to him with a big problem. And so, as she tries to resolve it herself, Colin feels left out. The more left out Colin feels, the more he holds himself in check, which creates more and more anxiety for Emma.
There are no screaming battles in this book, no “I hate you, now let’s make passionate love” scenes. Instead, there are two adults who look at the world in a way each can understand for the other. Both characters are immensely attractive, both physically, and, eventually, as people.
The author’s take on Colin’s wounded self is very well done. We see his nightmares, and then, as he finally allows himself to share them with Emma, we see his healing as well. Instead of the traditional master-spy, master-soldier we generally only read about in romances of this era, the author actually reveals the horrors of war and what it could do to a man.
Besides Ferik, there are other interesting secondary characters as well. There are Colin’s formidable mother and grandmother, Emma’s father and brother, an oily adversary who tries to muck things up for Emma in a very nasty way, and Lady Mary, a dramatic and spoiled young girl who believes Emma got her man.
The obvious intelligence of the lead characters in how they deal with all these “characters” is very fun, for the most part, to read. But the most fun of all is in watching Emma and Colin’s love unfold – both to themselves and finally, gloriously, to each other. What works so well here is the author’s use of the traditional sense of English “reserve” and rules of the ton. The warmth Emma and Colin find through their relationship slowly allows them a real, loving relationship. Colin, in particular, though never an outwardly- seeming tortured hero, has demons he has not shared until he met Emma. His transformation by the end of the book, while not as dramatic as those in books with alpha-to-the-nth-degree heroes, is just as satisfying. His nightmares have turned into dreams.
There’s not much to criticize about this book. The hero is heroic, handsome, and humorous, the heroine is beautiful, capable, and funny, the secondary characters are interesting and provide for additional depth and tone, the problem facing Emma is probably more realistic than some of the far-fetched schemes written of in many romances, and I didn’t get a headache from the yelling that often accompanies such stories.
This is not the best book you’ll ever read, but it will hit the spot very nicely. After feeling left out in the cold with good books being few and very far between lately, this book was like a yummy cup of hot chocolate – the perfect accompaniment to a cold winter’s day. I eagerly anticipate the next book Jane Ashford writes.