What happens when a marriage of convenience isn’t so convenient?
Lieutenant Colonel Benedict Draven has retired from the army and spends most of his days either consulting for the Foreign Office or whiling away the hours at his club with his former comrades-in-arms. He rarely thinks about the fiery Portuguese woman he saved from an abusive marriage by wedding her himself. It was supposed to be a marriage in name only, but even five years later and a world away, he can’t seem to forget her.
Catarina Neves never forgot what it felt like to be scared, desperate, and subject to the whims of her cruel father. Thanks to a marriage of convenience and her incredible skill as a lacemaker, she’s become an independent and wealthy woman. But when she’s once again thrust into a dangerous situation, she finds herself in London and knocking on the door of the husband she hasn’t seen since those war-torn years in Portugal. Catarina tells Benedict she wants an annulment, but when he argues against it, can she trust him enough to ask for what she really needs?
Shana Galen’s series featuring The Survivors, a group of men who survived being part of a specially selected suicide squad during the Napoleonic Wars, continues with The Claiming of the Shrew, which tells the story of the squad’s commander, Lieutenant Colonel Benedict Draven, and his Portuguese wife, Catarina. I’ve read the first couple of books in the series – although I missed the last two – so I knew who Draven was and was eager to read his story, especially as he’d been present but rather enigmatic in the other novels and was clearly highly respected and well-regarded by his men. Plus, he’s in his mid-forties and I’m always up for a romance featuring a more mature hero.
In her introduction to the novel, Shana Galen explains that it began life on her website/newsletter as a short story showing how Draven met and married Catarina. That is included in The Claiming of the Shrew as a kind of prologue, with the story then continuing five years after the couple parted following their hasty marriage in Portugal.
Amid the battlefields of Portugal in 1814, Benedict Draven has orders to create a company of thirty men who will be used to go on the most dangerous of missions. He knows it’s akin to forming a suicide squad, but orders are orders, and he sets about making a list, putting Major Neil Wraxall (Earls Not Allowed) in command. Draven already feels weighed down by guilt at the prospect of sending many of these men to certain death, and a bad day is made worse when a young woman manages to sneak into his tent, points a gun at him and demands that he marry her.
Catarina Neves is desperate to escape marriage to the older, abusive man her father has chosen for her simply because he’s equally desperate to get her off his hands. The father of five daughters, the custom that the younger cannot marry until the elder does infuriates him, because Catarina is so independent and outspoken that no man will have her – making it impossible for his other daughters to marry. Catarina has no wish to hold her sisters back, and having glimpsed Draven out riding with his men, and then watched him for a few days, has decided he is well able to stand up to her father and a far better prospect than the man chosen for her. And in any case, once they are married, they can go their separate ways and need never see each other again.
Of course, Draven refuses Catarina (having guessed the gun isn’t loaded) and sends her on her way, but has reckoned without her tenacity. When he finds her in the camp again, he’s about to turn her away, but when sees the horrible bruises on her arms inflicted by her would-be suitor, a strong protective instinct kicks in and he decides to help her in the only way he can; they’re married later that night and then part ways.
Five years later, Draven (now retired from the army and working for the British government) is surprised – to say the least – when Catarina shows up at his rooms to ask for an annulment. Their marriage is on shaky ground anyway seeing that she’s Catholic and he isn’t, but regardless of that, Draven is suspicious of Catarina’s explanation for her sudden appearance (that she’s fallen in love with and wants to marry someone else), and finds he isn’t prepared to let her go that easily. They may not have seen each other for five years, but he hasn’t forgotten her or the sweetness and heat of the kiss they’d shared after the hasty ceremony – and seeing her again, realising she’s scared and lying to him brings back all the old protectiveness and more. In five years he hasn’t been able to look at another woman – but now she’s back, Catarina is all he can think about. All he has to do now is remind her why she trusted him all those years ago, and hope that she will ask him for the help she so obviously needs.
I liked both central characters a great deal, and the age gap between them – twenty years – didn’t bother me, although Draven refers to it quite a few times. He’s a thoroughly decent man, strong, protective and deeply loyal, he can be stubborn but isn’t afraid to admit when he’s wrong, and his disinclination to waste time playing games or denying his desire for Catarina is very refreshing. Catarina, too, is an attractive protagonist, a determined, spirited woman who works hard to make a good life for herself and becomes a much sought-after maker and designer of lace. I enjoyed Draven’s gentle courtship, and the author writes the attraction between them well, but there’s an element of insta-love in Draven’s sudden realisation that he doesn’t want an annulment that really didn’t work for me in the context of the whole novel. Also, Catarina’s decision that he’s the man she wants to marry is based pretty much on what he looks like on horseback – and from a distance: “she’d seen this officer and known instinctively that she could trust him.” – and I found it too flimsy a reason to buy into.
The plot – Catalina is being blackmailed by a business rival – is nicely handled, and I was relieved when Ms. Galen sidestepped an obvious plot-manœuvre towards the end. Unfortunately, she then proceeds to manufacture a last-minute conflict which happens so quickly that it feels completely fake and there-for-the-sake-of-it, and I found it rather jarring and it pulled my final grade down a bit. All in all though, The Claiming of the Shrew is an easy, undemanding read featuring an intelligent, independent heroine and a loving and devoted hero. Despite its missteps, it makes for an engaging continuation of The Survivors series.