Verity Clifford does not look her best when she emerges from the convict hold in the ship’s steerage after the end of the long sea voyage to Jamestown. Unjustly accused of theft, the ex-governess has saved her virtue by trading away almost every scrap of her clothing. When Gray Garnett–a wealthy American plantation owner who has just been jilted by his intended British bride–sees her body so brazenly exposed, he has no doubt about her profession before her deportation.
Though thoroughly disgusted by the duplicity of women, Garnett is drawn to Verity as she is led away to the block to be sold into seven years of servitude. When Verity’s bond-papers are bought by the repulsive William Gundell, Garnett intervenes, arranging a trade: the beautiful Verity in exchange for an excellent shotgun, nevermind the fact that she seems to have no skills beyond whoring and is sure to shock everyone at his plantation, where the household is still ruled by his aging mother.
Even as Verity begins to reveal her true talents–reading, writing, and and the manners of a lady, all of which make her an invaluable companion to Mrs. Garnett–she begins to comprehend the reputation she has acquired. A reputation that causes Gray Garnett to be far too free with her, his widowed sister-in-law to declare war, and the unctuous Gundell to pursue her with increasing recklessness.
Though readable, Bond-Woman is deeply flawed. Julia Herbert sets the stage for the plot through one of the most clumsy manipulations of a character I’ve ever encountered. Despite the fact that she knows that women who possess skills fare far better in the Colonies as bond-women, Verity absolutely refuses to respond when asked if she is capable of any specialized work. Nor does her friend, in whom Verity confided while on board the ship, speak up about Verity’s education and talents. Worse, when Gray notices with surprise that she can sign her bond papers in a good hand, she actually brushes him off, insisting that anyone can learn to sign their own name with enough practice. There is no logical reason for Verity to conceal her skills. This obstinate and illogical silence makes the heroine seem foolish from the opening chapters.
Gray is not much more believable: for a man of the world who has clearly purchased bond-men and women in the past, he cannot be unaware that, after a sea voyage (and after having to pay for every favor on the ship in one currency or another), very few transported women would step out of the hold in immaculate condition. Nonetheless, he concludes that Verity is a street walker immediately. Indeed, Herbert seems to sense this flaw in her storytelling, since soon after she inflicts Verity with an unnecessary head-injury just to give her heroine a reason to crawl, half-conscious, up to Gray’s camp pallet–a sexual “come on” that cements his first impression.
The combined “ickiness” of their master-servant relationship and the mixture of revulsion and attraction that Gray feels towards his “property” lead to several uncomfortable sexual encounters. Unsurprisingly, these scenes are repulsive rather than erotic. Yet somehow Gray, despite his disgust, becomes infatuated enough with Verity to cause his mother (and others) alarm. The remainder of the book is packed with trips to Jamestown, abductions, court cases, gown-buying, and numerous improbabilities (including a deus ex machina that made me roll my eyes and wonder if the author knew exactly how long it took for a letter to cross the Atlantic in the late seventeenth century).
Overall, Bond-Woman is a tolerable read dragged down by glaring problems in characterization and probability, coupled with a serious lack of sensuality. I cannot recommend it, though I hope to find other books from the Masquerade Historical series more palatable.