The Bride Price by Anne Mallory
When a contest to earn a viscount-cy is announced all the natural (bastard) and 3 and 4th sons of the aristocracy immediately rush to enter. Sebastian Deville, natural son of the Duke is encouraged to enter when his father makes Sebastian's dead mother's estate part of the prize. Also part of the prize is winning the hand of Lady Sarah whose father, an Earl, is hosting the events. Caroline Martin is determined that her kind, gentle, some would say meek, cousin will not be thrown to the wolves who will misuse her as Sarah's own father misused her mother. She is dependent upon her uncle's generosity so she if forced to help set up the games and ensure things run smoothly, but she is determined to do everything she can to keep Sarah away from the degenerates. And then she meets Sebastian and the two do not hit it off to say the least. He insults her drawing ability and nearly seduces her right there in the bushes. This will be a recurring theme in their relationship.
Deville is determined to win the contest, especially when his half brother, the Duke's legitimate son Benedict enters and is widely regarded as his toughest competition. Events include a game of cards, a horse race, a modified horse race where the opponents try to catch rings, archery, and gun play. Caroline is working behind the scenes to try to sabotage everyone's chance of winning the competition (although her attempts are laughable) and Deville is working hard to win in order to finally prove that he deserves his father's respect (although he'd never admit it). As the book draws closer to the end Caroline becomes more and more worried that Deville will win and choose her cousin while Deville begins to wonder if winning is worth the cost to his pride that dancing at his father's command will entail. To complicate matters further is a potential suitor for Sarah, and both the Duke and Earl trying to warn Caroline off Sebastian for very different reasons. But Caroline is the sort to make up her own mind and one can definitely see the progression Sebastian makes from jaded bastard to the sort of man Caroline can love.
I tried not to let the fact that this competition was utterly unrealistic get in the way of my enjoyment of it, but it was rather difficult even though I am almost never a stickler for historical accuracy and tend to hate those who are. But the whole competition was just a little pathetic- card games and horse racing; it just seemed too simple as if the aristocracy was admitting that they were all stupid and useless at anything worthwhile. My major complaint is with the way the two protagonists behave towards each other- especially the way Sebastian treats Caroline. At first he believes she is a scullery maid so he treats her poorly (not that it's excused even then) but when he discovers her true identity he still spends far too much time insulting her, being jaded around her and rather harshly trying to seduce her. As a reviewer on amazon puts it: he pursues her the same way he pursues the tournament, as if it/ she is something to conquer and own. Literally.
And that feeling spills out into the sex which is super hot and there's certainly plenty of lead up. It was definitely interesting to read about a hero who actively admits to self-pleasuring and engages in it with the heroine. One particularly steamy scene was a little disconcerting; although they were both enjoying it there seemed to be too much "tell me I own you," and basically mental control on his part. I assume we're supposed to see how his barriers are collapsing as well. And there is certainly plenty of angst- although it seems a little too depressed to call angst at times- as she believes she is falling for a man who is just like her former husband and a man who will choose her cousin over her. While he believes he could lose the icy control he has needed to survive his father and half-brother and the lordship he has always wanted.
Rating: It was one of the more interesting novels I've read recently but instead of giving it 4 stars to show that it was better, I just knocked down some 3's to 2's so that one can adequatelky understand that this was better, but not that much better.