REVIEW: A Marriage of Equals by Elizabeth Rolls
Having struggled so hard to become a successful business owner, Jamaica-born Psyché Winthrop-Abeni has no interest in relinquishing her freedom or property to a husband. But when gentleman Will Barclay comes to her aid, their intense connection tempts her into a thrillingly passionate temporary affair! It’s the perfect arrangement…until Will feels honor-bound to propose. His offer is one she’s never dared to dream of, but can she trust Will enough to take the risk?
CW – period racism, period racist slur descriptors for people of color, descriptions of brutal conditions endured by enslaved people including mental torture, whippings and sexual non-consent, colonialism
Dear Ms. Rolls,
It didn’t take me long to realize that this book would be loosely based on the life of Dido Belle. But that was just the jumping off point to tell a story of an incredibly strong woman, forged by her life experiences, and a man who is maybe not quite her equal (because Psyche is awesome). Kudos that both MCs are not aristocrats and work for a living.
As the story opens, we see Psyche Winthrop-Abeni returning to her coffee shop (Using only non-slave produced sugar and coffee from the Dutch East Indies though the hero wryly thinks even this is problematic due to the practice of indenture.) in London. Yep, she’s a businesswoman who has carved out a life she controls, who owns her own place, and who has a cat (come on, y’all know me as a cat lady). Soon though another young woman appeals to her for help. Kit is underaged and has been promised to a man Psyche despises (for good reasons). Kit’s own father urged the man to rape Kit before marriage in order to assure her submission and he, Lucius Winthrop, agreed. And yes he’s a relative of Psyche and this is only one of the many ways this man is a shit. Now Psyche is involved in what amounts to an heiress abduction for which there are serious penalties.
Unknown to her, Kit’s uncle sends a message to someone who might help – the Marquess of Huntercombe, hero of “His Convenient Marchioness.” Luckily Hunt employs a secretary who notices things and something about the letter snags Will Barclay’s attention. Soon the two of them are assisting Kit in her desperate attempt to evade Bow Street Runners tasked with returning her to her (piece of shit) father.
A brief aside here as I never quite understood why it was so important to Kit’s (POS) father for her to marry this (POS) man. As in, what was in it for him as upon her marriage, her fortune would have gone to (POS) Lucius. Perhaps this is explained in some way in the previous book? I also didn’t understand what drove Psyche’s sire to bring her to England beyond massive guilt.
This half of the book focused on Psyche and Will meeting and making the decision to work together to help this poor woman. Soon however, they were striking sparks of interest that led to some bedroom hotness as (Hallelujah) Psyche isn’t a virgin (her choice and arranged by her) and she owns her sexuality and pleasure. Will is a bit amazed but delighted as she is a marvelous bed partner and continues to impress him in everything she does.
He rightly realizes that she’s one damn impressive woman but one who also has horrible things in her background. Parts of the story are told with flashbacks that are wrenching and will break your heart. Twelve year old Psyche arrived in England from Jamaica with the father who was basically on his deathbed. But he got her to his Uncle in time to ensure that his fortune went to her instead of his loathsome (POS) brother – you guessed it – Lucius. That method of referring to the man who sired her is deliberate on Psyche’s part for very good reasons. These are hinted at throughout the book though not with the type of heavy hand and repetition that usually serves to annoy me before the details are (finally! thank God) revealed. And trust me, when Psyche finally tells someone this part of her life, the impact is gut wrenching.
Soon after Psyche reaches the great house where her Great Uncle lives and the father dies, she is alone in a strange country, among people she doesn’t know, and as she is biracial, that could easily have allowed for her to be sent back to slavery in Jamaica or to the hellhole of the slave markets in Freetown. Her Great-Uncle Theo (a prince among men) has already told her that there is no slavery in England but will these people be kind to her or not?
‘Fighting against every rule that had ever been drummed into her about keeping her gaze lowered, Psyché swallowed, and looked timidly at my lady, who she didn’t think was entirely convinced that she wished to be any sort of aunt to her.
Please. Oh, please! I promise I will be good! Please let me stay here where there is no slavery! Please.‘
And if that last sentence isn’t enough to make you weep for a scared twelve year old who has seen more and lost more than anyone should have, then I suspect your heart is made of stone.
Once the situation that has brought them together is dealt with (and I think this will be further explored in the next book), Will and Psyche think about their relationship but Psyche has good reasons not to trust marriage or any promises made by a man trying to woo her and Will has something in his background that he’ll need to come clean about.
Thank goodness that there are no massive background info dumps here and that most things are shown rather than told. We know that Psyche’s coffee shop is thriving due to scenes of her adroitly managing it. Her employees are loyal and we’re shown why. She is fiercely independent because most of the high society in which she was raised will never accept her and she wants to control her destiny.
Psyche isn’t the only character struggling due to the color of her skin. One of her employees was dismissed because the white daughter of the house paid him too much interest. The experiences she had and the things she saw in Jamaica haunt her still in ways white Londoners can’t imagine such as when Kit must hide for hours in a dark cellar which reminds Psyche of slave punishments. Psyche makes sure that the products she uses in her store are not produced by slave labor. She also doesn’t look for long term love or marriage. Even accepted into her Great-Uncle’s household, she has faced a life of being thought an aberration – imagine!, she can speak French, or play the piano, or other things that white women of the ton are expected to be able to do – and hearing disparaging comments. Until Will, Psyche never thought to have someone interested in her not despite her skin color or even because of her skin color. Some people tried to overlook it but Will sees her humanity and her color – he doesn’t view her as a “miscolored white person.” He also doesn’t balk at the fact that her money and her business are tied up in a trust that no man can ever get his hands on.
Will does one thing that helps Psyche accept that he’s not going to try and coerce her or control her. It’s a major thing and the outcome helps steady her but the change in her thoughts on marriage are maybe a bit too quick given her life experiences. But then Will is a wonderful – perhaps almost too wonderful – character. He has to do some soul searching and come to terms with that something in his background. Still I was happy that there was someone who truly saw Psyche, accepted her unconditionally, and was willing to let her wear the riding boots in the bedroom – yes. B