Keeper of the Swans

Lord Monteith's Gift

The Rake's Retreat

The Bartered Heart by Nancy Butler
(Signet, $4.99, PG) ISBN 0-451-19816-6
Nancy Butler just keeps getting better and better. Her debut book was good, her third book was very good, and this, her fourth book is excellent. She has a way of creating heroes who have been wounded by life and then finding the perfect heroine to bring them the happiness that has eluded them. What more could a Regency fan ask for?

Griffin Darrowby has certainly been wounded. His mother separated from his father when he was twelve, taking his two younger brothers and leaving him to bear the brunt of a cruel and violent father. Left almost penniless, Griffin had recouped his fortune, only to see it disappear in a series of unexpected misadventures. Now, his only hope of maintaining his position in society is to marry a rich woman.

Fortunately, while his Darrowby forbears were renowned for their profligacy and scandalous behavior, they were also renowned for their striking good looks. Griffin has inherited these looks and is thus an attractive suitor. His choice falls on Lady Minerva Stargrove, a lovely and wealthy widow.

Invited to a houseparty at Lady Minerva’s Cheshire estate, Griff gets lost while seeking a shortcut to the manor. He encounters a wood sprite who spooks his horse, causing him to fall into a stream. He also encounters two rogues who decide to kidnap him and lock him in the woodshed of their decrepit farm. These villains are the wood sprite’s stepbrothers and the farm is where she lives.

Gates Underhill is the daughter of an itinerant preacher. (He renamed her “Gates of Heaven” when the call came upon him.) For the first twelve years of her life, she lived happily with her lawyer father and her genteel mother. But when her mother died, her father took to his preaching. He married the widow of a farmer (hence the step-brothers), but for the most part, he ignored his daughter. She has grown up in the woods, making the best of her life and finding “daily miracles” in the beauty of nature.

Griff frees himself from his makeshift prison and almost takes his anger out on the innocent Gates. But he stops in time and begins to discover just what a rare and special person his “Miss Under-the-hill” is.

It takes a talented author to create a scenario that can convince the reader that a member of the ton (however financially embarrassed) and a young woman who, however good her birth, has led such an unusual life, could find happiness. Butler achieves this feat with a plot that seems eminently plausible.

Griff had thought himself unable to feel any of the gentler emotions, but Gates creates in him a surprising tenderness and protectiveness. Her resilience in the face of hardship moves him, as does her gentle optimism. Gates is naive, but she is not stupid. She sees the best in Griff, and he rises to meet her expectations.

Butler peoples her story with a fine cast of secondary characters. Lady Minerva is not your typical widow character. Griff’s Aunt Delphi is a crusty spinster lady who has a soft spot for her nephew and wants to make sure that the change she sees in him after Gates enters his life endures. Griff’s two brothers make an amusing appearance, and Gates’ two stepbrothers are unfortunately not completely out of her life.

As should be the case in any good romance, the relationship is the most compelling part of The Bartered Heart. Griff is puzzled by his reaction to this unusual woman. He understands lust, but he has never known love. His confusion about his own feelings is perfectly comprehensible. As for Gates, Griff is the handsomest man she has ever seen. But he also helps her, defends her and cares about her, something that has been missing in her life. She is not at all confused about her feelings, only about what to do about them.

Butler’s Regency romances remind me not a little of Mary Balogh in their emotional intensity. Her heroes and heroines are often a bit unusual, something I like very much. This story is much more character driven than the author's previous books, also a plus for me. The Bartered Heart may well make it to my keeper shelf.

--Jean Mason

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