I bought this book after reading an article in RT’s May issue about what some romance authors from back in the day are doing now. Their profile of one author, Alexis Harrington (whose name was vaguely familiar to me), mentioned that she’d recently published her backlist on Smashwords and Amazon Kindle. Clickity, click, I had a sample, and then a few clicks later I had to buy the whole book.
Harper’s Bride is a quiet, thoughtful romance. It’s a historical, so it takes place in the past, but something about the style, the way it was written and the language and prose also seemed historical, too. It was originally published in 1997, which isn’t that long ago, but as I read I kept thinking, “Wow, I haven’t read a book like this in a long time.”
Melissa Logan is standing behind her abusive waste of molecules husband Coy while Coy confronts the local shop keeper, Dylan Harper, about his debt. Seems Coy is over $1500 in the hole to Harper’s store, which in the days of the 1890’s Yukon gold rush was a whole lot of money. Coy comes up with a great solution: he’ll trade his wife and infant daughter, Jenny, in exchange for the bet.
Dylan has noticed that Melissa sports a bruise on her face and is unwilling to stand anywhere near her half-drunk, all-stupid husband, and so has his friend, Rafe, who is leaning on the store counter watching the whole scene. When Dylan agrees against his better judgment to trade the debt for Melissa, Rafe, a judge with a terribly consuming cough, takes them to the saloon next door and writes up an agreement exchanging Melissa and Jenny for the $1500-or-so debt. Melissa hasn’t said more than a few words at this point.
Once the deal is done and signed, Dylan informs Melissa that she doesn’t have to be his wife In That Way, but that cooking, cleaning, that type of thing, would be peachy. She’s pretty much terrified of her own shadow, and hauls ass up the stairs to the apartment above the store to start her new life.
Their first meals together, their first few days together, are awkward and quiet and painful. Melissa is not entirely convinced her change in fortune is anything better than the devil she knew, to say nothing of the blow to her sense of self importance that she could be sold as a means to pay off a debt. Slowly, particularly after she notices Dylan shaving with his shirt off a few days in a row, she comes to realize her own worth and her own strength, and begin to act on her intentions to provide a life for Jenny – a life where Jenny would never find herself in the same powerless position her mother had been in.
Melissa is a character I enjoyed reading about, and I rooted for her, though at times she was Snow White whistle-while-you-work perfect. Evil stepmother, team of mining dwarves, and man-dirty house in the woods are not going to keep Snow White down – and even though Melissa has genuine moments of terror and self-pity, she’s also so resilient and so perfect and so easily admired by just about every male in Dawson that she’s almost too perfect.
What saves her from unrealistic perfection is the imperfect awkward realism of her reaction to Dylan. He wasn’t expecting a wife. He doesn’t actually want to have one, but slowly, he realizes that he does want Melissa, and he has real and genuine feelings for baby Jenny as well. If the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, Melissa takes the express route by not only cooking meals for Dylan – who isn’t used to home cooking – but caring for his clothing and making his barren apartment into such a home and a haven that during the day he can’t stop himself from visiting, as if he’s not sure it’ll really be there the next time he goes up the back stairs.
Their attraction is slow and careful, blocked by their unfamiliarity with one another and by her actual marriage to Coy, who is still somewhere in Dawson City, drinking or sleeping in the mud. Their friendship is just as slow, and thus by the time they being to turn toward one another, it’s a natural development to the story and to the characters’ lives.
Plus, the setting was wonderful: Canada! During the gold rush! With miners and crazy people and a town experiencing a huge boom of building and an influx of people coming to find gold… it’s awesome. And the chaos and loud boisterousness of the town of Dawson City contrasts constantly with the quietness of Dylan’s apartment, the peacefulness Melissa craves and finally establishes for herself, and the calm waters of their slowly developing friendship.
The only thing that really bothered me, and this may be a sign of the time that the book was published, was how much they TALKED about everything. My gosh, even the ending was a discussion of the ending. For a taciturn man who didn’t want a wife and doesn’t want to want Melissa, he just opens up to bring their business to a close. It wasn’t twee or saccharine but my gosh, they were pretty much telling each other the story at some parts.
That said, the marriage of convenience plot doesn’t always work for me, because all too often there’s that, “hey, we’re married, we might as well bow-chicka-bow-wow… hey, wait, that complicated things!” plot twist of tiresomeness. Harper’s Bride is a very inconvenient marriage for Dylan and Melissa – one that they don’t want, and one that ultimately they can’t really have. The small and careful obstacles to their happy ending were echoed by the quiet and careful building of their fragile friendship, and watching it deepen as those obstacles were cleared away made for marvelous, warm and fuzzy reading.
Harper’s Bride is available digitally at Smashwords (with a coupon for $1 off each book good until 14 May) and for the Amazon Kindle. You might be able to find used paper copies (this book is out of print) at Alibris or Amazon.com, or at AbeBooks in the UK.