His Wayward Bride (Romance of the Turf #3) by Theresa Romain

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Though their horse-racing family is as troubled as it is talented, all of the Chandler siblings have found love…except eldest brother Jonah. Married four years ago and abandoned after his wedding night, single-minded Jonah now spends his days training Thoroughbreds—while his lost bride is a family mystery no one dares discuss.

And that’s just the way Jonah and his wife, Irene, want it.

The biracial daughter of a seamstress and a con artist, Irene has built a secret career as a spy and pickpocket who helps troubled women. By day she works as a teacher at Mrs. Brodie’s Academy for Exceptional Young Ladies; in spare moments she takes on missions that carry her everywhere from London’s elite heart to its most dangerous corners.

Jonah agreed to this arrangement for four years, until Irene’s family fortunes were made. After surviving on passionate secret meetings and stolen days together, now it’s time to begin the marriage so long delayed. But as these two independent souls begin to build a life together, family obligations and old scandals threaten to tear them apart…

Rating: B-

I enjoyed the first three books in Theresa Romain’s Romance of the Turf series, which focuses on a family of successful horse-breeders and trainers based in Newmarket.  One of the attractions of the series has been that there’s nary a duke or earl in sight – historical romance about non-aristocratic characters is relatively rare, so the author is to be applauded for writing about the gentry instead of the nobs.  It’s been a while since the last title in the series (Scandalous Ever After) was released, but  I did remember that the eldest of the Chandler siblings, Jonah, had appeared and/or been mentioned in the earlier books, and that he was married… but that his wife, for some unexplained reason, wasn’t around.

As it turns out, Irene Chandler – née Baird – is a teacher at Mrs. Brodie’s Academy for Exceptional Young Ladies (as featured in the novella duo by Ms. Romain and Shana Galen), an exclusive boarding school in Marylebone that teaches classes in self-defence and pick-pocketing alongside the more traditional subjects.  Irene has been a teacher of geography and history there for six years, and loves it; but like some of her fellow teachers, she also carries out certain extra-curricular activities at the behest of Mrs. Brodie.  Irene is, in fact:

… a sort of spy. A thief.  A secret agent.  The headmistress of her academy had ties to prominent people across England, and she pulled strings to make sure their power was used for good.  Irene was, when needed, the physical hand who did the pulling.

As a biracial woman – her mother is a black Englishwoman, her father a white American – Irene knows only too well the feelings of powerlessness and helplessness in the face of injustice.  She loves the life she has built for herself and is fulfilled by it, even as she recognises that her work is of the sort that will never, ever be done when there are people who need the sort of help Mrs. Brodie can provide.  But she made a bargain four years earlier, one that is going to change the course of her life, and payment is now due.

Jonah Chandler is the eldest son of Sir William Chandler and, since the illness that has confined his father to a wheelchair, has taken over many of the duties involved in running the family business.  Unlike his siblings Nathaniel and Kate (whose stories were told in the previous books), Jonah has been the one to stay at home, to follow the path laid down for him, going from home to school to the stud farm and while he loves his work, he wants more from his life.  Four years earlier, at Newmarket, he found that something – or rather someone – when he met Irene Baird (in rather unusual circumstances).  After a whirlwind courtship, they married quietly, but haven’t lived together since, only meeting a few times a year when they could both snatch the time to spend a few days or hours together – because Irene needed to remain in London and at her post until her younger brother was thirteen and old enough to be sent away to the prestigious boys’ school at which she has, with Mrs. Brodie’s help, secured him a place.  With those four years almost up, Jonah comes to London in order to ask Irene to return to Newmarket with him as agreed.  He loves her and misses her and wants to make a family with her; he’s a decent, steady and compassionate man and had been content to be Irene’s convenient husband, but now he wants to walk his own path… and he wants to do it with his wife at his side.

Irene is horribly torn.  She loves Jonah and wants to be with him, but she’s also reluctant to give up the life she’s built for herself and worries that she is in danger of losing herself if she does so.  Theresa Romain does a terrific job of articulating Irene’s many shifting thoughts and emotions; is she being selfish by wanting things to stay the same; how she can give up teaching and her missions when there are always going to be people who need help; how can she be fair to Jonah and to herself; is she good enough for him? – presenting Irene as a multi-faceted and very real character as she wrestles with these and many other problems.

Jonah is a lovely beta hero who has never wanted Irene to be anything but herself and has recognised – and admired – her spirit and independence and appreciated the importance of her work. But now he has seen what she does with his own eyes, and sees the difference she makes, he understands, more than ever, how difficult a choice he has presented to her.  But a choice is inevitable.  And he doesn’t want to “not be your choice anymore.”

Ms. Romain has clearly done a lot of research into horse breeding and training and into the London of the 1820s, presenting it as a cosmopolitan place, with areas of the City of London and East End home to many businesses owned, operated by and employing people from all over the world, and people of colour specifically.  She has clearly given a lot of thought to depicting the way Irene and her family members are viewed by some and the casual prejudice they encounter – which, while distasteful to read, was – and sadly, continues to be – found in people from all walks of life.

But even with the number of very positive things the book has going for it, I can’t deny that it fails to deliver one really important thing.

A romance.

Irene and Jonah met before this story starts, so the falling-in-love part of their story is over and done by the time we meet them.  I liked the fact that they’re a couple who isn’t estranged for the usual reasons found in romance novels (family pressure, infidelity, deception etc.) and that they are both as in love with one another now as they were when they first met.  Most romance novels end at the HEA and readers rarely glimpse those couples again (other than in cameo roles in other books in the same series) and once again, I applaud Ms. Romain for tackling a situation that doesn’t crop up all that often in the genre.  But the problem – for me – is that I am recognising all these really good things with my head and my brain; the writing is excellent, the dilemmas faced by the characters are really well put forward, the research is impeccable… but I didn’t FEEL anything of the romantic chemistry and spark I look for between the principals when reading a romance.  I also can’t deny thinking that perhaps Irene didn’t love Jonah as much as he did her; she has set aside ideas of her own happiness in favour of securing the happiness of others, which, in turn, gives her a sense of purpose and satisfaction – but when the ‘other’ whose happiness she could secure is her own husband’s… well, she doesn’t give him the same consideration she affords everyone else.

There are several sub-plots in the book  – all of which are tidily wrapped up – one might say too tidily – by the end, some of which have little bearing on the overall story and are, I think, loose plot threads from earlier in the series that needed to be tied up.  In fact, one of them felt as though it belonged in a completely different book.

To sum up… I came away from His Wayward Bride unsure as to how I felt about it.  It’s got a lot going for it, but the superb insight and beautiful prose can’t quite disguise the fact that, for me at least, the book lacked an emotional centre and real… for want of a better word, ‘heart’.  That said, I think there are many out there who will enjoy this tale more than I did, and for that reason, I’m giving it a qualified recommendation.

 

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