Bet You'll Marry Me
by Darlene Panzera, contemporary (2012)
Avon Impulse, $4.99, ISBN 978-0-06-225256-2


Bet You'll Marry Me was an expanded version of The Bet, a short - well, shorter - story published back in June as a special bonus in Debbie Macomber's Family Affair. I have no idea what it was that got expanded here, but since there are a number of hastily inserted family drama moments and a roll call of several one-dimensional villains here, I can make a few guesses.

Now, Bet You'll Marry Me has a premise that will most likely work if it had been a farcical comedy, but Ms Panzera serves up a sober "rich man saves near-bankrupt woman" story, complete with sick old men and burning buildings to complete the whole "rejected Hallmark movie script" feel, so this story is, I'm sad to say, stillborn. Yes, I know, it won some writing contest sponsored by Avon, but given the number of turkeys out there that have won writing contests, I won't use that argument as a rebuttal for the quality of this story.

Okay, the story. Our heroine Jenny O'Brien is an utter failure in life. She is trying to run her family ranch, but the money isn't coming in. Of course, Jenny can't sell the ranch, she can't sell anything on the farm either despite having a very nice house full of pretty things, and she wrings her hands and whines about her situation even as her Uncle Harry basically runs the whole show and she can't make any decision unless he agrees to it as well. There is a twisted kind of amusement to be had when the author has Jenny wailing that she only knows how to ride horses. Apparently, it's okay, even wonderful, for women in romance novels to be utter duds when it comes to life.

Nick Chandler needs a hundred grand ASAP. His business is in trouble, although the author is careful to make it seem like the failing part is beyond Nick's control. He's a guy, after all, and we all know God decreed that it's a man's job to take care and provide for his woman, so Nick can't be seen like a failure in life like Jenny. Don't worry, people, he's not broke like Jenny. Someone has to pay for the honeymoon, after all. He just needs the money because the hilariously awful bad guy has his sister and... oh, it's a long and stupid story. Let's just say that he needs Jenny's land, but she won't sell even if she needs the money bad. What can he do?

Well, he has his chance when the local barkeep, upon realizing that Jenny is a failure who can't balance an account book without acting up, starts a betting pool as to which man would marry Jenny first and save her from her financial woes. Yes, it's 2012, but the only acceptable way for a woman to overcome her financial woes is to prostitute herself while pretending it's true love marry a guy who will pay for everything. The next time someone tells me that romance novels empower women, I am going to take this thing and shove it down her throat.

So, the bet becomes public, and the local newspaper even makes it a regular feature on the front page. If that is not stupid enough, neither Jenny nor Nick does anything to shut this down, even when Jenny begins to get harassed by the guys she meets (there is, apparently, no shortage of men willing to marry this bankrupt woman because they believe there is gold hidden on her land, go figure) and it will only benefit Nick if he cuts down the competition. Instead, Nick makes a bet with Jenny - she will get $10,000 from him if he can't persuade her to marry him, and Jenny accepts because $10,000 will pay off a month's worth of expenses. Let the prostitution racket, er, courtship begin!

Oh, Jenny, Jenny, Jenny. Where do I even start? She's an utter failure in life, as I've said several times already. Useless at everything, she can't seem to do anything right at all. Jenny is the kind of heroine who, even when she's down to her last coin, will wail that she has no money to make the people around her happy. Even if I can accept that there is absolutely no way she can get a loan from the bank, it's hard for me to feel sorry for her when it's very apparent that her problem arises due to inaction - she refuses to sell anything or even change anything about her current life to adjust to her current situation - rather than life giving her lemons.

She spends more time wailing that she has nobody in her life to call her own when she's not riding her beloved horse. Worse, she's a hypocrite because she insists that she's her own woman even as she scolds the men in town for not giving her a loan like a gentleman would. She is fond of berating Nick for not doing things for her. Even when he does do things for her, such as buying her a race horse that will help change her financial situation for the better after getting back her mother's ring for her, she berates him anyway because, once he's given her pretty things, she suddenly remembers that she's supposed to be an independent woman who can't be bought by money. The author wants me to see Jenny as a sympathetic heroine beset by unhappy circumstances. I see a shrill and useless idiot who fails at everything in life and yet has this disproportionate sense of entitlement when it comes to things men should do for her.

My favorite part is how, despite knowing very well that the whole thing starts with a bet, Jenny decides to revise history and claims that she has been duped by Nick once she realizes that Nick is the CEO of a big company. Clearly, he doesn't love her and is just using her! Sure, he's bought her so many nice things that will help pay off big chunks of her debts when he doesn't have to, but Jenny knows that he doesn't love her, and she, of course, is the innocent victim. Oh, it's time for that epic fail at living to start crying and wringing her hands a bit louder than she'd done all this while.

Nick is no prize, as he is a lying moron, but at least he gives the woman nice things and pays her bills in return for getting a feel of her naughty bits. For a john, he's not bad at all. Still, he lies for no good reason, for the sake of the idiot conflict I've described above, and his "I need to help my sister!" plot is hilariously ridiculous.

Oh, and the author doesn't trust her characters to fall in love on their own, so she does what every unimaginative author tied down by a need to follow the tropes does: she introduces painfully contrived plot developments to ensure that Jenny becomes so financially dependent on John, er, Nick by the last page that it's not like she has any other option for matrimony. The other guys in this story are all jerks or old men anyway. The romance here, at the end of the day, is more like a financial transaction where both parties delude themselves into thinking that it's true love so that they can all sleep easier at night.

Bet You'll Marry Me isn't a complete failure from a technical standpoint, but when it comes to plots that make sense and the use of tropes in a palatable manner, this one is a colossal dud.

Rating: 46


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