Hadrian Northmore climbed from the coal mines of Durham to a position of wealth through his business ventures in the East Indies. He provides his youngest brother with the education and means to win a place in Parliament and abolish the dismal conditions that killed the rest of their family. When Hadrian returns to England only to discover that Julian died in a duel, he is devastated. He is also determined to gain custody of his illegitimate nephew. However, Lady Artemis Dearing, who has raised little Lee since her sister and brother’s deaths, is not willing to relinquish him. Faced with eviction from her home, Artemis arranges a marriage of convenience with Hadrian so she can raise Lee herself.
The problem is that Hadrian and Artemis don’t like each other. Each blames the other for their siblings’ deaths. To Artemis, Hadrian is imperious and presumptuous, and she resents both his plans for Lee’s future and his assumption that Artemis will easily concede to them. Hadrian finds Artemis to be cold, and once he discovers her aristocratic family’s financial distress, he concludes that she is a fortune hunter who has leveraged her nephew to her own advantage.
Of course, both protagonists have secret wounds that caused them to erect almost impenetrable walls around their hearts. Artemis believes she is unattractive and un-marriageable at the age of twenty-nine. Hadrian has lost two families already, and can neither afford to love again nor to expose his coal-mining past for fear of losing his partners’ respect.
Although they believe they are worlds apart, Hadrian and Artemis have similar characters. Therefore, they rub each other the wrong way. In one moment they find common ground, in the next they misunderstand each other. Their relationship careens between icy and tender. Up to a point, this alternation is an effective tool. It means that the pair have charged exchanges. At times, however, the formula becomes tiresome. One wishes that Hale had held back a bit longer before her protagonists began to discover their similarities.
I do have quibbles about the plot. First, Hadrian is repeatedly represented as a man who never apologizes. However, from the beginning of Bought: The Penniless Lady, he is able to say he is sorry to Lady Artemis. The author needs to “show” us more of Hadrian’s behavior, rather than merely “telling” us about it, especially if we are to believe his change is due to his feelings towards his bride.
Second, Hadrian is obsessed with one idea: that his brother Julian would run for Parliament and campaign for reform. Once Julian dies, Hadrian transfers his ambitions to the one-year-old Lee, while planning to return to Singapore to continue building his fortune. Despite the fact that Hadrian has educated himself, it never occurs to him (or anyone else) that he himself could run for office and advocate change. Instead, a sweet new character, Lord Ashbury, is introduced. Too much of the plot goes into Hadrian’s nonsensical plans, and then his problem resolved quickly by a deus ex machina.
Finally, the end of the book sets up the beginning of the next in the trilogy, Wanted: Mail-Order Mistress. Although Hale integrates the “seed” of her next book into Hadrian and Artemis’s story, it also becomes a tool to rush the romance to its conclusion.
In terms of “Hotness,” The Penniless Lady does fairly well. Artemis and Hadrian’s original encounter had just the right level of “spark” to it, and was justified by the action of the scene. Later encounters were sensual and appealing, although the scene when the protagonists consummate their relationship is lackluster. How many times can an author write the word “shaft”? I’m beginning to tire of its overuse across many books, but Hale peppers her sex scene with it more liberally than most.
I think I have written more about my reservations about Deborah Hale’s book than about its positive qualities. That is a shame, because I did enjoy the book. The main characters are wonderful. Not many Regencies have heroes who are not from the aristocracy–but Hale has created a series based on the rising merchant class. Brave and refreshing, I say.
Hadrian’s tragic past is believable, as is Lady Artemis’s. Her proposal of a “marriage of convenience” as an outrageous bargaining chip (one that she never expected Hadrian to accept!) is hilarious. I appreciate the treatment of Artemis as a “single mother” and of the smear of an illegitimate child in an aristocratic home. Artemis’s backstory makes her the ideal character to love Lee even when she cannot love herself.
Sometimes when a reviewer finds a lot to censure, it means that the book is good enough that the problems stand out. That is the case with The Penniless Lady. I do recommend Hale’s book for readers who are interested in cross-class relationships, damaged or older characters, and atypical Regency plots.