Marry in Scarlet
Marry in Scarlet is the fourth book in Anne Gracie’s Marriage of Convenience series, and to be perfectly honest, after the huge disappointment that was Marry in Secret (book three), I wasn’t sure I was going to read it. However, I couldn’t resist the pairing of the spirited heroine with no interest in marriage and the cold, aloof hero; it’s a very well-worn trope, and to be honest there isn’t really anything new to be found here. But with tropes, it’s all about the execution, and the best authors can turn even the most worn-out old cliché into an appealing story; and for the most part, that’s what Anne Gracie manages here, crafting strong, flawed characters and an interesting conflict that kept me engaged.
Lady Georgiana Rutherford has made no secret of the fact that she doesn’t want to get married. Ever. When she comes into her inheritance at twenty-five she plans to buy a house in the country and breed horses and dogs, and luckily for her, her uncle and guardian, the Earl of Ashendon, is neither horrified by this nor trying to push her into matrimony. Unluckily for her, her great Aunt Agatha sees George’s plan for living in the country with dogs and horses as a positive reason to suggest her as a bride to the haughty Redmond Hartley (Hart), Duke of Everingham, after he was jilted at the altar by another Rutherford girl, Rose (Marry in Secret). The duke is annoyed at such interference, but Agatha keeps trying to persuade him that Georgiana is exactly the sort of woman he wants:
“a young woman of good family who would not hang off your sleeve… a wife who would keep out of your way and give you no trouble.”
Everingham refuses – although Agatha’s Parthian shot:
“it would have taken all my considerable powers of persuasion to coax Georgiana to wed you”
causes him just a little bit of pique.
Of course, when Agatha tells the Rutherfords of Everingham’s refusal – he wouldn’t want “an ill-trained, boyish, impertinent hoyden for a wife” – George is outraged. How dare Agatha suggest such a thing without even consulting her! (And she’s privately a bit stung by Everingham’s rejection. She doesn’t want him, but it’s for HER to reject HIM, dammit!)
I wasn’t sure if Agatha was trying a bit of reverse-psychology there, but the next time Hart sees George – she’s riding hell-for-leather astride a massive black stallion – he admires her seat and decides he wants to buy the horse. George refuses. Hart is obviously a man used to getting exactly what he wants, and the more adamant her refusal, the more intrigued he becomes. After a few more encounters – during one of which they share an intensely passionate kiss – Hart decides he wants George after all. He recognises that she’s every bit as in lust with him as he with her, and sets out to increase her physical desire for him by playing hard to get.
There’s no getting away from the fact that at the beginning of the book, Hart is an arrogant, sexist git. He thinks all women are scheming, unscrupulous and out for what they can get, and doesn’t for one moment consider that George’s refusal of him is sincere. He thinks she’s playing some sort of game with him, and decides to stop wasting time by arranging for them to be caught in a compromising situation. George is well aware that what she’s feeling, for the first time, is physical desire (every time she sees Hart, she’s overwhelmed by the need to climb him like a tree) – but is adamant in her refusal to marry him.
The bulk of the story is given over to the merry dance Hart and George lead one another, and overall it’s well done. There’s no question that Hart is haughty and controlling, and while there’s no excusing his misogyny, there is at least some explanation for it when we meet his mother, a manipulative woman who had his father wrapped around her little finger and will stop at nothing – even pretending to be at death’s door – to get what she wants. Hart has tarred all women with the same brush, and the moment at which he finally comes to see that he has acted in a way that is completely at odds with his personal code of ethics, sense of honour and view of himself is a powerful one that truly shakes him up and forces him to seriously examine himself and his motives. And he doesn’t like what he sees.
It’s fortunate for him, then, that he falls for a woman who is as unlike his mother as it’s possible to be. George grew up in poverty with no knowledge of her family until Ashendon sought her out; she’s straightforward, honest and honourable, but reluctant to trust herself and her happiness to anyone else. Hart’s growing realisation that George deserves more from him is nicely done as he starts to understand that she needs his support regardless of what it may cost his dignity, and to accept and value her eccentricities. I liked the way the author shows the couple’s growing closeness, and Hart gradually loosening up under George’s influence.
So everything is shaping up well, the duke and his new duchess are settling in to life together – and suddenly the story veers off in a completely unexpected direction with a sub plot concerning the disappearance of two seven-year-old boys, one of whom is Hart’s ward. I suppose it’s meant to show that Hart really does have a heart (!), but it felt like I’d picked up the wrong book. I knocked a few points off because it jarred so much, but that’s balanced out by the extra points given for the sweet little sub-plot about Aunt Dottie.
Ultimately, Marry in Scarlet is an enjoyable read featuring a strongly-characterised central couple with a genuine spark, and a relationship that’s allowed space to develop. It’s not ground-breaking, but it’s a well-executed version of the trope, a solid series finale and a satisfying character-driven romance.