Desert Isle Keeper
Strangers at the Altar
I’m a sucker for a good marriage-of-convenience story, and this one is very good indeed: In fact, Strangers at the Altar is one of the best historicals I’ve read this year. The book features a pair of very likeable protagonists who come across as two ordinary people trying to deal with events which have caused profound changes in their lives.
Ainsley McBrayne has been left practically destitute after the death of her profligate husband. She is at her solicitor’s office, making a last-ditch attempt to see if there is any legal means to break the terms of her late father’s will and gain access to the trust fund he created for her in order to stop her husband getting his hands on her money. She is told in no uncertain terms that there is nothing she can do, and she leaves, frustrated, angry, and wondering how on earth she is going to support herself.
Innes Drummond, who has just emerged from a similarly frustrating session with his solicitor, overhears Ainsley’s dramatic exit and muses that he and the door-slamming fury have something in common. Encountering Ainsley on the front steps of the office building, Innes is even more convinced of their being, in a sense, kindred spirits, and invites Ainsley to join him for a drink. Over a dram, Ainsley learns that Innes’ situation bears a passing similarlty to hers in that he, too, is beset by difficulties rooted in his father’s will. But unlike her, his problem is related to an inheritance he doesn’t really want rather than to one he desperately needs.
Innes left his Highland home fourteen years previously in order to pursue a career as an engineer – in opposition to his father’s wishes. He is now a wealthy and successful man, but his father’s will stipulates that in order for him to inherit his former home and lands he must be married and reside there for at least a year after he receives the bequest. Innes doesn’t feel any particular desire to set up as the Laird of a remote highland estate, but he does feel a responsibility to the tenants and crofters who make their living from the land, whose lives will be severely affected if he does not at least return to inspect the place and make some decisions regarding its future.
Ainsley finds herself opening up to this attractive stranger about the difficulties she is in due to the way her father tied up her inheritance. Her marriage to a spendthrift who continually undermined her self-esteem has left Ainsley more than a little emotionally bruised, and now she has regained her independence, she is determined not to relinquish it. The problem, though, is how she is to support herself without the money she can’t touch for another decade or so.
Then Innes has a “lightbulb moment” and proposes they get married as a way out of their difficulties. She doesn’t want a husband and he doesn’t want a wife – but as this will be a marriage of convenience, that won’t be an issue, as neither of them would be going into it with romantic expectations. Innes will settle all Ainsley’s debts and provide her with an income, and by marrying him, she will give him the breathing space he needs in order to properly assess his situation.
Normally, I might just be rolling my eyes at such a huge contrivance at this point – but I wasn’t. It’s a tribute to Marguerite Kaye’s skill in crafting her story, and in having presented two such strongly-written characters – even at such an early stage in the book – that the proposal seems perfectly plausible. It also helps that the chemistry between Innes and Ainsley is already palpable. Their conversation has a natural feel to it and is laced with humour and the sort of mutual understanding that some authors can’t create in three hundred pages, let alone thirty!
The newlyweds repair to the Highlands, and here, Ms Kaye’s obvious love for the sights and sounds of Scotland shines through in her vivid descriptions of the stunning landscapes and the local traditions. The couple’s gradual assimilation into the community and their deepening regard for the land and its customs beautifully mirrors their growing love for each other, as Innes finds himself rediscovering his love for the land of his birth while Ainsley is completely captivated by the beauty of her new surroundings.
There’s a storyline running in tandem with the development of the romance about Ainsley’s alter-ego as an Agony Aunt by the name of Madame Hera. She is able to make a little money by writing a column for a ladies’ magazine in which she dispenses advice to the (mostly) unhappy women who write in. At the beginning of the book, Ainsley has no doubt that she is well-placed to answer the questions she receives, but as, with Innes’ help, she begins to regain her confidence, she also gains perspective and allows herself to realise that there are two sides to every story. Ainsley really grows as a character and is instrumental in helping Innes to do the same so that he can lay to rest the ghosts of the past and look to the future.
One of the best things about the book is the way the protagonists are willing to actually talk to each other, even though sometimes it’s difficult for them. Innes, especially, finds it very difficult to open up about certain aspects of his life and his past because of the intense guilt he still feels over actions he believes have rendered him undeserving of love. And Ainsley, whose late husband completely shut her out of any discussion about his mounting debts or anything else in his life, is more than a little angered when she realises that Innes is trying to do the same thing. Once again, however, their openness with each other goes a long way towards smoothing their way, and what is forged is a marriage based on the right things – mutual understanding, trust, compassion and an almost combustible physical attraction.
Strangers at the Altar is a very enjoyable and satisfying read. The central relationship is exceptionally well written and developed, and the love scenes are sensual and steamy without being overly explicit. If you enjoy character driven romances in which the hero and heroine are willing to share their troubles and work together towards reaching their HEA, then you need look no farther than this.