I received an advanced digital copy of this book through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
Setting: American Midwest & England, c. 1870s
I’ve read many of Joan Johnston’s novels, most of which I think are really enjoyable. This particular book is connected to her 35 “Bitter Creek” novels which include several different series. The various characters often pop up in subsequent books, different locales and generations of family members. This is the fourth and last in the “Mail Order Brides” series which centers around a family of children who were orphaned by the Great Chicago Fire and eventually escaped the orphanage they were living in by answering a mail order bride advertisement. Along the way, they are kicked out of their wagon train and end up being overrun by some renegade–please note that distinction–Sioux (American Plains) Indians. Some of the family members are injured, some are stolen away. Their family is separated. The previous stories show us where they end up: Texas, Wyoming, and Montana.
This story picks up with the final missing member of the family, Josephine Wentworth, who has been captured and is in the midst of being flogged with a bullwhip by one of the renegades when she is rescued by Marcus Wharton, Duke of Blackthorne, who is adventuring in America. She is so courageous and stoic through her beating that she earns his admiration, and he feels a sense of protectiveness toward her. Through his interpreter, he is able to make a trade for the girl. He ends up treating her injuries himself during the sea voyage back to England, where he then makes arrangements for her continued care and return voyage back to America once she has recovered. (Huh. Why he made her take that long voyage just to return her, I’ll never know.) His request is not exactly fulfilled according to his wishes, however, unbeknownst to him.
Her injuries were so bad that she was never able to tell him her name and he never saw what she looked like fully recovered, but the memory of her unbreakable courage–and her scars–stayed with him, even through a marriage and the eventual deaths of both his beloved wife and their unborn child.
Due to mismanagement by relatives, the financial status of his holdings are dismal and he is in desperate need of money in order to make repairs and provide wages for servants and staff. He decides to place an advertisement in American papers offering marriage to a wealthy socialite who wishes to obtain the title of “duchess”. One of the last-minute applicants is Josie, who knows who he is and has ulterior motives for wanting to marry him.
Although they both have an immediate attraction to each other which feels almost fated, there is such a lack of honest communication between the two, specifically due to Josie’s failure to be honest with Marcus about who she is and why she is really there. Instead, there is a lot of sneaking around and machinations so that she can either hide her scars which would give her away, or because she keeps secretly meeting with a Pinkerton agent.
Their time together was enjoyable because they innately try to protect each other and help alleviate any emotional pain the other may be going through; however, all the secrecy was unnecessary and exhausting. I personally dislike excessive angst, so Josie’s dishonesty and the “too stupid to live” behaviors involving another character in a secondary story line stressed me out a bit. The ending was also tidied up rather quickly with a lot of big events and time leaps happening within the last few pages. All in all, the story itself was fun to read, but for my personal tastes, it just didn’t come across as tight as most of Johnston’s work.
Blackthorne’s Bride, #4 Mail Order Brides