No Man's Bride

No Man's Bride  - Shana Galen 3.5+ starsA book that walks a tough line... Regency romance but with a social-issues twist. Catie might be the oldest, but her sister Elizabeth (Lizzy) has always been the darling. Their father is a second son, a drunk, and a man who uses his fists. He beats Catie, locks her up in a small closet with spiders and vermine, and mocks her whenever it suits him. And it suits him often. Her younger sister Lizzy is as much a tormentor as her father; it gives Lizzy great joy to tattle on Catie and to be her warden. Catie's mother is glad that it's Catie, and not her, and so her mother is almost as harsh; she fears that if she doesn't go along with her husband's treatment of Catie, that he'll turn back on her.But Catie (Catherine) has 3 allies - her cousins Maddie (Madeline), Josie (Josephine), and Ashley. They rescue her whenever they can, give safe haven, and offer their full and total support. It's enough to get Catie through the worst of it.Everything is threatened once again, however, when Lizzy is engaged to England's most up-and-coming politician, Lord Valentine (Quint). Quint is on his way to a Cabinet appointment, and he needs a wife to push him over the edge. A pretty wife who can host his political parties and balls and be an asset to him. A wife who allows him in her bed - enough for some pleasure and to produce an heir or two. Quint doesn't expect more than that. How Quint can have been fooled by Lizzy is anyone's guess. Then again, Lizzy must have been able to fool most in the "ton", because she moves quite freely in society and has her share of admirers. For some strange reason, Catie's father decides that he can't allow Lizzy to marry before her elder sister (Catie) is married. OK< it's a plot device, and a bizarre take-off of "The Taming of the Shrew", but still... So again, for the strangest of reasons, their father decides that he'll substitute Catie for Lizzy, so that Lord Valentine marries Catie. How? Well, first, early on the morning of the wedding, Catie's father frightens her into thinking that he'll sell her to a horrid man for 10 pounds unless she promises to do exactly as he says. Catie is in fear of her life, so she agrees, even though she knows what her father means to do. When Catie protests that Lord Valentine will notice the difference and refuse, her father tells her that he's bribed one of Valentine's servants to drug him with opium, as her father is about to do to Catie.The entire day is a blur to Catie. She barely remembers the ceremony, or whether or not her own name was spoken. She only remembers the moment when Valentine lifted her veil and frowned; Catie knows that at the moment, he realized whom he'd married. The next thing she knows, she wakes in a bed, naked, with a naked man beside her. It's Valentine. And now, it's impossible to annul the marriage - not without a scandal that would take down not only Catie, but Valentine's entire career and reputation.Quint is certain that Catie was behind her father's scheme. (Nothing is said about the servant who was bribed... strange. Don't you think Quint would immediately fire that person?) But Catie's actions show her as fearful and mistrustful. She shrinks back from him and flinches as if he'll strike her. And her clothes are missing. When Catie takes to the streets in only a sheet, Quint goes after her - but not before they catch the attention of folks on the street. Catie is afraid Quint will return her to her home, where she's certain her father or Lizzy will kill her.As Quint is trying to calm Catie and reason with her, Catie's cousins scale the wall and enter through the bedroom window. They instantly take Catie's side, and show Quint they mean to protect her from HIM. From their conversation, Quint realizes there must be more going on than he knows... he begins to wonder how complicit Catie was in the marriage scheme. You see, Catie had tried to convince Quint at the betrothal ball that Lizzy wasn't who she seemed to be. Quint had already noticed Catie and was unnerved by her without understanding why. The night of his betrothal ball, Catie wasn't wearing the sacklike clothing she usually wore; no, she was in a figure-hugging dress and took his breath away. He was about to kiss her when Lizzy stormed out and caught them.Even on his wedding morning, Quint was dreaming of Catie in his bed. Now that she's been in his bed - naked - he can't keep his mind off her. Is she a scheming witch? Or is she another victim? Either way, Quint knows that he must stop the scandal. He puts it about that he changed his mind and offered for Catie. He knows that won't stop all the gossip, but it will help. He's got an impeccable reputation. But what to do about this "marriage"?Quint decides the only thing he can do is try to get to know his new bride - in his country house, where they can have some peace and quiet. He discovers Catie's secrets there, when she wakes, screaming, from her nightmares. Quint realizes that Catie's father is behind all of this. And that he, Quint, is falling in love with his bride. But can he woo her enough to gentle her? To have her fall in love with him? And how can he secure this Cabinet position? Catie is afraid of crowds and rejection... she's not been out much in society or at balls. How can she ever be the wife he needs?A very interesting trip into the small village helps Catie to learn much about herself and about desire. She's learning to trust Quint, little-by-little... to crave his kisses and controlled passions. At the dressmaker's shop, Catie finally sees that she can be pretty. And at the inn, when she and Quint are the only witnesses to a couple making love, Catie squirms with desire and discomfort. Can a man be gentle and loving? She allows Quint some liberties as they watch, and her eyes are opened - wide - to the pleasures of passion. A few nights after, Quint asks her to be his wife in every way and gives her complete control over him. Together, they make love and discover the joys of each other.When Quint's man-about-business and secretary, Meeps, shows up with the gossip sheets and telling him that his political rival is now up for the Cabinet position, too, AND his rival's wife is hosting a huge ball... Quint decides he must return to London and fight his rival. But is it too soon? Catie interprets his news as a man's prerogative - to demand his own way. It's all about his career, she thinks; he only seduced me to get me to do what he wants. And he wants her to host a ball for 400 people, including the prime minister and the prince regent! How dare he!Will Quint and Catie ever be able to completely trust one another - to truly share their hearts and their love? Or will they always mis-read and misunderstand one another? Will Lizzy interfere with the big ball that Catie must host? Will Catie be able to do her duty or will she fail miserably and be abandoned and mocked? Will Catie's father cause trouble?-------------It's a touching story, although it does like to make things a bit melodramatic at times. The solutions are very romance-y and neat. But Catie's fears and hurts aren't glossed over or made "neat". She's been abused in every way except sexually, and the author helps the reader to see and hear and feel Catie's pain and loathing... her fear to trust and love. You hurt with her, seeing how her father used love as a weapon - hugs one minute, followed by beatings the next. While you want to throttle Quint until he realizes that Catie isn't acting, you cheer him on as he carefully woos her. You know that Quint is a good man, who truly wants to banish Catie's fears and make her safe. But you wonder about his ambition... will it be his and Catie's undoing?I find it interesting that there are 4 cousins, and yet only 3 books in this series. But I'm curious enough to read the others, hoping for a glimpse of Catie and Quint along the way.