Avon, $5.99, ISBN 0-380-81906-6
Historical Romance, 2001
This is a good example of a “Hmm!” romance. I go “Hmm!” at the title – The Bad Man’s Bride. But the title fits the “Hillbillies fresh down from the Ozarks” theme of this hmm story.
Anthea Bright, the first of the three Bright sisters whose hubby-hunting will make up this Marrying Miss Bright trilogy, is a lady schoolteacher with elegant manners and genteel demeanor. She decides to head off to the wilderness of Kansas to do her best to teach kiddies etiquette, education, and elocution. But so far, she is trying not to pull her well-groomed hair out as she tries to bluff in her letters to her sisters about what a wonderful time she is having. The kids are monsters from hell and the school building is in danger of caving in and killing them all.
And into Ms Bright’s already disorganized life walks Gabriel Jackson. Gabriel is taking care of a quiet, shy little girl whom everyone whispers is his bastard. He demands to know why Ms Bright is teaching his Lily how to walk with a book on her head when she should be teaching Lily how to read and count. And from hereon, sparks fly between Dumb Farmer Brute and Little Miss Prim.
I call Gabriel Dumb Farmer Brute because that’s what he is – dumb. This is a man who thinks nothing of calling Lily’s mother “the country whore” right in front of the girl because to him, it’s “telling the truth”. He resents Anthea for teaching Lily manners because he knows Lily is doomed for a life of being nothing better than a shopkeeper’s wife. And he lets both Anthea and Lily know it most vocally. Plus, he hates his life. He wants to move out to drift about, I think, but he’s stuck here with Lily and it’s grumble mumble moan moan time.
Make no mistake, I understand the appeal of a dumb, big brute as a sex toy. But for a husband? And Gabriel may be dumb, but he doesn’t even have the courtesy to be silent. And he keeps putting his big foot into his mouth so that he ends up humiliating Anthea and Lily publicly or privately.
There’s a secondary plot about the educated, rich town banker Phil Cox who wants Gabriel out of the town. Apparently, his wife Cleo and Gabriel had a sexual relationship when they were fifteen, and Cleo has been holding out for Gabriel all these years. It is one thing to yearn for an ex-boyfriend, but Cleo goes further – she weeps and acts beyond frigid to Phil until the poor man feels that he has no choice but to drive Gabriel out of town for the sake of his marriage.
If you ask me, Cleo and Gabriel deserve each other. Cleo is dumber than dumb, and when Gabriel finally lets her down, not gently, but with the grace of an elephant tumbling down a ravine, I cheer when Cleo bursts into tears. Gabriel has no respect for anyone at all, and Cleo has no self-respect, so it is a disappointment for me that these two don’t end up together and remove themselves from the happy town of Haven.
I like Anthea, though, and Lily. Anthea seems to fall for the Dumb Farmer Brute because of Lily and also because of her own naivete – Gabriel is probably the first man she really, really sees the first time she is away from home. You know, like how people tend to do stupid things when the parents are away? The author doesn’t actually succeed in convincing me that Anthea sees something good in rude, obnoxious, boorish Gabriel who just can’t seem to say anything without flummoxing Anthea. Sexual chemistry? Yes. But the long-term love thing? Zilch.
The romance may be the weakest element in The Bad Man’s Bride but the author has created a lively, wonderful small town in Haven, Kansas. Anthea’s interactions with everyone (except Gabriel) bring a smile to my face because the whole small town fun and friends thing is brought to life so well by the author. So much that I really wish Cleo and Gabriel will get married, kill each other with the osmotic self-absorbed misery that they exude like a plague, and leave the rest of the town alone and happy. I hope the next book (The Crazy Man’s Woman?) won’t celebrate hillbilly stupidity as much as this one. I mean, come on – brains rule. Really!