Susanna Chadwick, kidnapped, is holed up in a country inn when we first meet her, trying to escape the marriage-minded clutches of her nefarious cousin, Jonathan. As Miss Chadwick's Champion opens, she’s standing over Jonathan’s body watching him bleed into the carpet from a head wound, courtesy of the pitcher with which she’s just clunked him over the head. Susanna makes her escape and ends up heading north into Yorkshire. Surely if her greedy cousin and uncle try to find her, they will assume she’s headed back to London.
Susanna finds herself stumbling across what she believes is an old castle ruin. She’s astonished to find it’s still inhabited, and arriving at the front door in a rainstorm, she’s shown to a dry bedroom by the housekeeper. Three brothers live there: Gawaine, a spendthrift; Gaheris or “Harry”, a young scholar; and their older brother, Gareth, Lord Lindale. Gawaine is all for tearing down the eight-hundred-year-old castle and selling it for building stone. Harry wishes only to study. Gareth, as the eldest, is determined to save the family keep. In order to do that, he’ll need to marry an heiress.
The three brothers are astounded to find a young woman on their doorstep. Susanna’s confused attempt to explain leads everyone to believe she has amnesia from a bump on the head, and Susanna decides to play along with that ruse until she can figure out where to go. She is nicknamed “Lady Elaine” after professing that she can’t remember her name. From there the story descends into subterfuge as Susanna tries to keep her identity a secret, even after Gareth (having discovered the truth about her cousin and uncle) decides that she’ll have to marry one of the brothers if she is to stay on safely at Belden Castle. But which one?
This book annoyed me. Or to be more specific, the heroine annoyed me. The entire story is built around Susanna lying to the Lindale brothers, over and over again, even after she’s decided that they’re a pretty decent trio of men. So here we have three genuinely nice guys, interested in helping this mystery lady, and all she can think of to do is to keep up a subterfuge. Just once, I’d like to see a plot like this where the heroine levels with the hero and asks for his help. Then perhaps they could outfox the villain together, while getting to know one another and eventually falling in love. You know, a romance.
Instead, we get self-serving Susanna. When it looks like she’s going to have to make a choice between brothers Gawaine and Harry, she suddenly decides it’s Gareth she really wants. Gareth, who hasn’t proposed (smart guy). So she invents a ridiculous “quest” for the brothers with the winner to gain her hand. When the cousin turns up again (as readers must know he will), necessitating a rescue, I half-hoped he’d spirit her out of the story. Gareth deserved better.
Melinda McRae writes clean, tight prose that’s easy to read. I enjoyed her descriptions of Belden Castle and its partially ruinous state; this was vivid and one could almost smell the dank walls. The Lindale men were also delightful -- they just needed a stronger heroine to go with them. Let’s hope if books about Gawaine and Harry are on the horizon, their ladyloves will have more spine and integrity.