Tempting Fortune - Jo Beverley "The quality of mercy is not strained.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. . . ."
The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare

There are many references to The Merchant of Venice in Tempting Fortune, the second in the Malloren series, and it could have made this book unforgettable. However, I had problems not only NOT liking the heroine, Portia St. Claire who showed absolutely no mercy or understanding or gratitude to Bryght Malloren for rescue/escape from one perilous situation after another, but I also mourned the undeveloped, never realized deliciously dark potential of Bryght Malloren that was hinted at in My Lady Notorious.

First the heroine is Portia St. Claire, and she was indeed named for Bassanio's Portia. But the resemblance begins to unravel very quickly. While Shakespeare's Portia is intelligent, wealthy, has many suitors, and is beautiful, Portia St. Claire is poor (about to lose her beloved Overstead, a family estate), leans more toward TSTL far too many times, a bit on the plain side, and is one of the most disagreeable heroines I have ever had the misfortune to read. Shakespeare's Portia was shrewd and cunning, with a remarkable ability to weed out truth from lies and wise in dispensing justice. This Portia trusted all the wrong people and was completely at a loss in determining what was true and what was false.

For example, Portia leaves Bryght on their wedding night, seeks out Fort Ware, a childhood friend (who may not have been THE villain in My Lady Notorious but who aided and abetted the villain in MLN) trusting him to take her to her brother, Oliver, at Overstead. Along the way she kisses him to compare his kiss to Bryght's. Fort whose hatred of the Mallorens knows no boundaries contemplates raping Portia as part of his revenge on the Malloren clan. While it didn't go quite as far as actual rape, he did attempt to force himself on Portia. It is also no testament to her wisdom or intelligence that she consistently makes excuses for her brother, Oliver, who is an inveterate gambler. Her favorite seemed to be that he gambled because he was bored.

Portia abhors gambling because her father gambled away everything and then shot himself. Her brother, Oliver, is just as bad. He is the one responsible for losing Overstead at the gaming tables. So her hatred of gambling was reasonable and expected. But that is no excuse for Portia being churlish, querulous, ungracious, and obnoxious in her interactions with Bryght Malloren. She is attracted to him, but she blames him when she succumbs to that attraction. Portia describes Bryght as "a professional gamester", a "hawk" among pigeons, "capable of wickedness" (Darling, aren't we all?), "a bully", "the type of man she abhorred above all", "a heartless seducer", "a high born rake of a gamester", and an "unrepentant gamester." I pulled these descriptions from about 40 pages, but they are repeated ad nauseum. She consistently ignores how many times Bryght saves her bacon with his "evil" gaming or how he came to her rescue when she was auctioned off at a brothel as payment for more of Oliver's gaming debts.

How did Portia end up in a brothel as payment for gambling debts? Cuthbertson, who is, I assume, a loosely based counterpart to Shylock the moneylender in The Merchant, comes to collect his money from Oliver and discovers Oliver is penniless. He and his enforcers proceed to threaten Oliver with loss of his "fingers, eyes, or balls" with lots of wailing, protesting, and gnashing of teeth by Portia. Finally, Cuthbertson offers Portia a trade for Oliver's various body parts:

"'Three hundred guineas. There is something in this room worth that
'Then take it and be gone!'
He laughed, and Mick sniggered. 'I fear it is not that simple. If sold, it
would be worth the money.'
'Then take it and sell it!'
'That was exactly my intent, if you are agreeable.'
Portia closed her eyes. 'Just take it and go.'
'The valuable item, my dear, is a little bit of skin between your legs.'

Assuredly, Portia does eventually understand the terms of the trade, that it's either "a piece of skin or major parts of Oliver's body." Cuthbertson assures Portia that the abbess will be able to "pass [her] off as quite young" because of her small stature and small breasts. So as Shylock wanted to extract a pound of flesh for Antonio's unpaid debt, Cuthbertson proposes Portia pay Oliver's debt with her hymen.

Like Antonio's sea ventures, the Duke of Bridgewater has come up with a speculative canal scheme that bleeds money faster than it comes in. Not only has Lord Arcenbryght Malloren, friend of the Duke, already invested all of his inheritance in the scheme, but he also comes up with a two-pronged attack to continue financing Bridgewater's dream. First, Bryght, because he is very skilled at games of chance, turns to the gaming hells for money to pour into the canal scheme. Secondly, just as Antonio in The Merchant is in search of a wealthy bride, Bryght has been courting and will marry a wealthy widow from the merchant class, Jenny Findlayson. A friend of Bryght's warns him that he believes Jenny to have "all the makings of a shrew." Bryght responds: "But a wealthy shrew. If necessary, I'm sure I can find a rundown house and set her to scrubbing floors..." (48) So he's just the manly man to tame this shrew. Right? Not to mention the implication that it was quite all right to show this Cit her place in his aristocratic world - not as an equal, but as someone who should be tamed, subdued, and on her knees.

Portia and Bryght never really get to know each other, and it's not clear to me exactly why Bryght falls in love with Portia. They don't really have a lot of time together, and most of their encounters are combative (especially on Portia's part) rather than rapport building. And she's just so damned ungrateful, ungracious, self-righteous, and pious all the time.

There's a part in which Bryght attempts to talk with her, flirt with her and asks what topic can they discuss which would interest them both. Portia responds by telling him they should discuss the Bible. Bryght then quotes these passages:

"How beautiful are thy feet with shoes, O prince's daughter"

"The joints of thy thighs are like jewels, the work of the hands of a
cunning workman. Thy navel is like a round goblet..."

Portia is "appalled" that he would claim this "lewdness" is in "the Holy Book." Even more insultingly she calls him a liar which results in Portia and Bryght entering into a wager. Yes, Portia the pious is wagering like, well, an unrepentant gamester! The loser will pay a forfeit, and Portia demands that when she's proven right that she will never "see [him] again", "never hear [his] voice", "never have [him] touch [her] in any way." (231). Very harsh.

After the first time they make love, Portia is still militant and insulting to Bryght. She accuses him of "seducing" her deliberately, comes perilously close to claiming to be a non consenting partner, refuses to marry him, vows if there's a child, she'd rather "raise a bastard" and then throws various objects at him. If this is sexual afterglow, I'd hate to see what constitutes foreplay for her. Did I mention that she runs away on their wedding night? And goes to a man who hates Bryght and all the Mallorens?

The pieces and parts of Tempting Fortune never really fell into place for me. Portia's tiresome self-righteousness, preachy attitude, and incessant bad-tempered behavior ensured I never liked her. I didn't care if she had an HEA; I was just glad to be rid of her. Bryght appeared to have undergone a personality transplant from intriguingly dark and heart sore in My Lady Notorious to an everyday, garden variety rake in Tempting Fortune. It's apparent Ms. Beverley did her homework in portraying Georgian England from fashion to the political environment. However, I wouldn't have minded a little less research in trade for a more likable heroine and a hero whose puzzling transformation from one book to the next was disappointing.