The Widow Wager
This is the third book in Ms. Michaels’ Notorious Flynns series, and focuses on Crispin, the younger brother of the new Duke of Hartholm, and a young man who has, for the past few months, been bent on self-destruction. It’s a fairly quick read, with possibly more sex scenes than one might normally find in a book of this length – not that I’m complaining! Jess Michaels writes them very well indeed, as one would expect of an author with fifty or so romances to her name. But the downside to that is that while Ms. Michaels has provided both hero and heroine with a fair amount of emotional baggage as a way of adding depth to their characterisation, the amount of time spent in the bedroom combined with the short-ish page-count means that their issues are resolved too quickly, especially considering the fact that Crispin is pretty much an alcoholic at the beginning of the story.
Crispin Flynn has always had a reputation as a hell-raiser, but ever since his brother Rafe suddenly found himself in possession of a title and a wife he didn’t want, his downward spiral has accelerated. Waking up one morning to find himself married to a woman he has never met sobers him abruptly – albeit temporarily. He is determined to find a way out of the union – he was in his cups and appears to have won her in a game of cards, so it surely can’t be legal. His brother is a duke, and even though they have been somewhat estranged for a while, surely someone with his power and influence will be able to find Crispin a way out.
His new wife, Gemma, formerly the Countess of Laurelcross, is no happier at finding herself married to a notorious rake, but given the dreadful rumours that are already circulating throughout society about her, will be utterly and completely ruined should her new husband be able to cast her off. Society will care nothing for the fact that she was humiliated and all but sold by her avaricious father – but if it were only her own reputation at stake, Gemma would brave the censure in order to gain her freedom. Unfortunately, however, she has a younger sister who is still dependent on their father, and any further stain on Gemma’s name will attach itself to Mary as well.
Realising that there is no good way out of the marriage, Crispin and Gemma decide to make the best of things, although both of them are keeping secrets that they are reluctant to divulge. Gemma comes clean first, telling the story of her miserable first marriage to a man who just wanted a brood-mare and then became cruel when she didn’t fall pregnant, and then telling Crispin of the rumours circulating that she killed him. But she is disappointed when Crispin doesn’t return the favour. He’s been drinking himself into oblivion day after day, and has managed to lose more than half his fortune at the gaming tables – and he won’t tell her why.
There were a number of things I really liked about this story. The familial relationships between Crispin, Rafe and their sister (and their respective spouses) are very well written and show clearly that the Flynns are a close-knit, loving family who look out for each other no matter what. They welcome Gemma unconditionally, giving her the sort of affection and support she’s never previously experienced. Gemma herself is a great heroine – even though life has battered her about a fair bit, she’s not going to give in without a fight and will do whatever she must to prevent her sister from treading the same path. She regains her confidence and owns her own sexuality – which naturally delights her new husband – even though she’d been made to feel ashamed of her own desires in her previous marriage. She’s intuitive and sensitive, hoping that her love and acceptance will help him to climb out of the pit he’s been so industriously digging for himself. Crispin is an attractive hero, in spite of his drinking, and the author does a good job in showing how close to the edge he is all the time in his continual cravings for a drink. He does manage to resist for a time, but he slips eventually, despite his good intentions. The most attractive thing about him, though, is the way he asks for and respects Gemma’s opinion – which is something that takes her completely by surprise. They make a good couple, both having unpleasantness in their pasts but who have the potential to heal with the help of the other.
The problem with the book is that when Crispin’s motivations for his headlong rush into self-destruction are finally revealed, they’re really weak and make rather a nonsense of the whole thing. He’s been labouring under a massive misapprehension as to the true nature of the woman he’d loved and lost, but even so, his reaction – given the nature of their relationship – is extreme, and stretched my credulity too far. And the other problem is that he is able to get over his craving for alcohol without too much trouble; that’s an issue I’ve found in other books I’ve read where one of the protagonists has an addiction of some kind, so this one isn’t alone in that.
Those two things apart, The Widow Wager is a well written and enjoyable story that uses one of my favourite tropes – the forced marriage – and does it with aplomb. The characterisation is strong all around, the sex scenes are hot and we definitely get the sense of a strong emotional connection forming between Crispin and Gemma. Had Crispin’s motivations been rather more plausible, this would have been a very strong B grade book. As it is, I’m going with a C+ – it’s worth reading, but the big reveal was a disappointment.