She’d done it! Plain, invisible Evelyn had escaped…
Fed up with being a doormat to her evil stepmother, heiress Evelyn Bradshaw pays a dissolute rake to pose as her betrothed so she can secure her freedom. But then her fake fiancé leaves her with his estranged brother Finn Matlock and disappears!
Having withdrawn from the world the last thing Finn needs is the temptation of a woman, especially one like Evie. She has an irritating habit of causing chaos wherever she goes and being in places she shouldn’t…including, as he soon learns, his heart!
In Miss Bradshaw’s Bought Betrothal, Virginia Heath offers an enjoyable re-working of the Cinderella story in which our downtrodden – but determined – heroine is a fully-rounded character with a nicely fleshed-out backstory who doesn’t need to rely on her Prince not-so Charming in order to effect her escape from her horrible relatives. Prince –or rather, Lord – Grumpy is, however a rather attractive consequence of that escape, and watching the sparks fly as they gradually and quite plausibly fall in love makes for a lovely, romantic read.
Miss Evelyn Bradshaw is twenty-six, plump, frumpy and firmly on the shelf. Having spent the best part of the last decade nursing first her mother, and then her father when he fell ill some years later, she feels that youth has passed her by and that love and marriage are no longer things to which she can aspire. Her father’s remarriage to a selfish money-grabber with two equally unpleasant daughters saw Evelyn – Evie – constantly belittled and thrust into the background to the extent that even she believes herself to be practically invisible; but his death offers her the prospect of freedom. Mr. Bradshaw has left his considerable fortune to Evie, and she is finally determined to escape her step-mother’s orbit, leave London for good and make a life for herself somewhere else. All Evie has to do is scrape up the courage to announce her plans, but even though Hyacinth Bradshaw has not treated Evie well (although she’s stopped short of getting her to clean the grates and scrub the floors!), Evie has never been able to forget her father’s insistence that she treat her stepmother with respect, and has always done whatever it took to ensure a quiet life.
Unable to just come out and tell Hyacinth of her determination to set up her own home, Evie instead offers the sum of five thousand pounds to the handsome but dissolute Fergus Matlock, Marquis of Stanford, if he will pretend to be her fiancé for the next few months. The Marquis, who is deeply in debt, agrees to the scheme, and Evie is set to travel to his Yorkshire estate on the pretext of preparing for their wedding. In reality, she will look about for a house to purchase and once she has found one, the betrothal will quietly be ended, and Evie will remain in Yorkshire, well away from London and her stepmother’s constant bullying.
Arriving at Stanford Hall a few days later in the company of her elderly aunt, Evie is pleasantly surprised to discover the place in a much better state of repair than she had been led to believe. Later that night, when Evie can’t sleep, she wanders down to the library, only to come across Fergus, who is supposed to be staying at a local inn in order to observe the proprieties. But something is not quite right about him and Evie soon discovers why; he’s not Fergus at all, but his identical twin brother Finnegan, and this is Matlock House, not Stanford House. It’s clear there is no love lost between the brothers, and Finn makes very clear his displeasure at his twin’s presumption in dumping his fiancée at his house, but Evie refuses to be intimidated by his ungracious manner. Nonetheless, she feels she should remove to Stanford House as soon as possible, but true to form as a cad of the first order, Fergus has already left Yorkshire with the advance on the “fee” Evie had given him. Finn is not surprised – he tells Evie (not for the first time) that his brother is an unreliable wastrel and that she shouldn’t marry him, but this is the new Evie, the Evie that sticks up for herself and doesn’t cower when confronted with the scowling, brusque brother of a marquis, and she insists that she knows perfectly well what Fergus is and that he suits her well enough.
Finn Matlock is a widower of some three years, and since his wife’s death, has buried himself in this corner of Yorkshire, his life consisting of seeing to his estate business and not much else. He doesn’t socialise, he doesn’t have guests – until now – and he wants to keep it that way – so the stirrings of attraction he feels towards his brother’s voluptuous fiancée are both unexpected and unwelcome. Yet very soon, he finds himself admiring her backbone and determination as much as her lush body and, though he’d never admit it, looking forward to breakfast each day, as that’s the only time of day he dares to let himself spend with her. Every morning, he not-so-subtly baits her, enjoying her completely unfazed responses to his jibes about his brother and his attempts to persuade her not to marry him, her casual manner of taking no notice of his heavy hints about her departure and the way she ignores his regular criticisms of her – admittedly horrible – clothes (a leftover from the days of Hyacinth’s influence over her wardrobe).
This daily ritual becomes important to Evie, too, as she likes the way Finn challenges her and the person she is when she’s with him. She is sure that a handsome, wealthy man like him could have no real interest in an overly plump, aging spinster like her – even if he wasn’t still in love with his late wife – and recognises that falling for him is a terrible idea. But even as she realises that, she knows it’s too late for caution; the real Finn, the kind, protective man who hides his deep hurt and true nature beneath that outer shell of bad-temper and cynicism has stolen her heart.
Away from London, Evie transforms from the doormat she’s always describing herself as into a more confident, independent young woman who is looking forward to the rest of her life because it will be one she has built on her own terms. This is one of the things that makes this version of the fairy tale so appealing; Evie finds the wherewithal to go out and make a life of her own from within and doesn’t need a man to rescue her – although she does, of course find true love along the way. And for all his outward grumpiness, Finn is perfect for her. He is determined to fight his ever growing attraction to Evie, but her vitality and her growing self-confidence are so completely enticing that it eventually proves irresistible; so not only is Evie changed by their association, but Finn also comes to accept that the guilt he still feels over his wife’s death is misplaced, and that he is allowed to be happy and move on with his life.
This is – I think – the fourth book of Ms. Heath’s I’ve read and I continue to be impressed by her strong storytelling and thoughtful characterisations. While Miss Bradshaw’s Bought Betrothal undoubtedly treads a well-worn path, the author has managed to keep it fresh by throwing in a number of small, but satisfying twists that add depth and insight to this familiar tale. She writes with a great deal of warmth and humour, creating the most wonderful chemistry between her principals as well as treating us to some moments of poignancy and emotional truth that quite took my breath away.
If you haven’t yet tried a book by Virginia Heath, then you have a treat in store. I guarantee that if you read this one, you’ll want to go back to read her others and then, like me, will be eagerly awaiting whatever she comes up with next.