“Let’s kill off your wife,” is the attention-getting opening line of this holiday-theme romance set in Denver in 1890. It seems that Carson Fairfax, the estranged third son of the Earl of Atwick and one of the city’s richest men, has been lying in his letters to his mother. He had invented a bride, a society wedding, and an opulent residence to comfort her on her death bed when it appeared there was not time for him to return to England before the end. However, Mother recovered and has written to announce her intention of visiting her black sheep son and his wife. Carson had emigrated from England in reaction to the conflict between his father and himself, but his feelings for his mother are still deep.
Carson, in actuality, remains unwed and runs the Gentlemen’s Respite, a drinking and gambling establishment. He and Randolph and Dolly, two friends who know of his deception, are trying to devise a plan so that the countess will not discover the truth. His friends inform him that his only course is to find himself a wife. Dolly nominates Katherine Tucker as a possible candidate.
Katherine, the heiress of her late father’s gold mining fortune, is a member of Denver’s social elite and lives with her sister Lily in an elegant mansion in Capitol Hill, the most prestigious area of Denver. She is also a reformer and regularly campaigns outside the Respite soliciting signatures for a petition to close it down. Dolly has reason to believe that Katherine is facing financial difficulties.
Owen, Katherine’s father’s business partner and trusted friend, informs her that the bank is about to foreclose on her home’s mortgage. Katherine refuses to sell a particular gold mine in order to raise the necessary funds. She has been keeping company with Nolan Stewart, a lawyer, but is content with their relationship and reluctant to seek marriage in order to save her home. Owen is not the trustworthy advisor she believes him to be; he recommends to Nolan that he compromise Katherine in order to get her to marry him. Nolan is reluctant to push Katherine into marriage because he considers her an “ice maiden” but Owen is insistent.
Carson has been attracted to Katherine since he first arrived in Denver and begins to call on her. When Nolan attacks her, Carson is on hand to defend her. She explains the cause of her financial problem with the bank and Nolan’s part in them. Because her sister is blind, Katherine does not believe she can move her from the only home she’s known. Carson proposes that marriage between the two of them will solve both their problems.
But their simple marriage of convenience becomes very complicated when his mother arrives with the rest of his family and Owen’s determination to acquire Katherine’s mine turns deadly.
The fictitious bride/marriage of convenience plot is a familiar one to romance readers. (Carla Kelly’s With This Ring features essentially the same plot.) This stock plot provides an opportunity for the hero and heroine to fall in love after marriage where societal strictures won’t limit their activities. Whether the ring arrives at the beginning of the story or near the end, however, it’s the romance and the relationship between the hero and heroine that should be the focus of the book. There’s so much going on in Brighter Than Gold - Owen’s dastardly machinations, Katherine’s reformer zeal, her sister’s blindness, Carson’s long-standing quarrel with his father, lots and lots of family dynamics, cheerful holiday parties, questions about the gold mine - that the romance almost gets lost in the crowd.
Katherine is a decent heroine with some gumption and determination - her supposed reputation as an ice maiden is not supported by her actions. (It did seem strange, however, that a twenty-three-year-old spinster wouldn’t be more interested in snapping up a up-and-coming young lawyer in one of the city’s most prestigious firms.) Her gullibility to Owen’s scheming is understandable in light of her father’s relationship with him.
Carson, on the other hand, is a less believable character. The rich saloon-keeper is not outside the realm of possibilities, but his English aristocratic background seems stretching it. I did wonder why Dad’s got to be an English lord. Carson’s quarrel with various family members is an essential part of the plot, but this is Denver - scions of the English aristocracy aren’t going to be thick as the snow on the ground. Furthermore, travel in December from England to Colorado -with all the kiddies and nursemaids in tow yet - seems unrealistically easy.
Readers who are looking for a Christmas-theme romance may find Brighter Than Gold a pleasant story, but it lacks the strong romance and that extra spark to raise it above a three-heart rating.