I apparently bought this book in 2012. It’s a backlist historical by Harlequin/M&B, originally published in 2004. Victoria Aldridge published half a dozen category romances, all historicals set in New Zealand. This book has a Marriage of Convenience (MOC) trope, an unbelievably naïve heroine, and a hero with some unusual qualities. If you’ve been looking for non-wallpaper historicals, this is one for you.
Caroline Morgan wants nothing more than to run the family farm and other holdings when her father steps aside, but Ben Morgan refuses to consider a woman for the job. The eligible son of the property adjoining theirs in New South Wales is smitten with Caroline and Ben is pushing for a personal and business union. Caroline, who is naïve and feisty in equal parts (not my favorite combination in a heroine) refuses and runs away to New Zealand, where she hopes to find her mother’s sister, Charlotte.
She does indeed find Charlotte in Dunedin, a bustling city that serves the New Zealand gold rush of the 1860s. Charlotte is the owner of the large and luxurious Castledene Hotel, which she inherited from her recently deceased husband. But the hotel is in disrepair, the staff aren’t being paid, the debts are mounting, and Charlotte, who cares nothing about the hotel, is in thrall to the oily and lecherous Mr. Thwaites. Thwaites runs the adjoining bar and makes a healthy profit on it but pays no rent to Charlotte. Caroline knows she can turn the hotel around, but she needs money, and the banker holding Charlotte’s notes won’t lend to a woman.
Enter our hero. Caroline needs a husband and fast, so she pays Leander Gray, a drunk she finds in Thwaites’ bar, to marry her. Of course Leander turns out to be More Than He Seems, and together they start putting the hotel to rights. Plot developments send Charlotte and Thwaites off-page (separately), and the first half of the story has our MOC’d couple working together and getting to know each other. They’re getting fond of each other and Leander has cleaned up nicely, but we still have half a book to go.
The book was unusual and fun up to this point: the setting is not one we see often in historicals, Leander is a real drunk (as is Charlotte), and while Caroline can be annoying naïve, she’s not afraid of hard work and her growing relationship with Leander is well portrayed. The writing style is smooth and on occasion witty, and the context feels authentic.
The way Aldridge keeps the two from reaching an HEA surprised me, and in a good way. I don’t want to spoil the book because it’s well worth reading, but the initial event that drives them apart is one you won’t find often in genre, and it’s completely organic to the story. Leander takes off and the second half is about Caro finding and then following him through the gold rush towns. It’s quite unlike the first half and turns into a road romance. They resolve the issue that separated them, but they find they have very different worldviews and have to find a way to reconcile them if they’re going to make their marriage work. There’s one more separation, this one featuring a more standard genre plot twist, Charlotte and the other supporting characters reappear and have their plot-related loose ends tied up, and at the end of the novel Caro and Leander reach a believable although unforeseen ( by me) path to their HEA.
I really enjoyed this story. I’d forgotten how rich and varied category historicals were back in the 1990s and 2000s, before the Recency swallowed every other period and historical verisimilitude fell to the bottom of the list of ingredients required for a successful romance. The sex scenes are not explicit, but they’re organic to the story and the opposite of prudish. Now I want to read Ben Morgan’s story.