Mary, Queen of Scots, was the subject (both knowing and unknowing) of many Catholic plots to overthrow Queen Elizabeth I. Aware of this, and with new rumors afoot, Andrew, Earl of Exford, is assigned to monitor Mary’s visit to an English spa town. Luckily, he has a cover. Ten years ago, when he was sixteen and she was ten, he married Lady Elizabeth (Bess) Turville, whose estate is conveniently near the spa. He can reclaim her, consummate their chaste marriage, and take her on a honeymoon during Mary’s visit. No one will be the wiser – unless, of course, an actual conspiracy interrupts things.
At the beginning of this book, Drew is a complete tool. No two ways about it. When he first meets Bess, he mistakes her for a local lass, and fully plots to seduce her since she’s so much better looking than the wife he recalls (who was, let’s also remember, ten). This sets up an absolute gem of a scene in which Bess, who has recognized her husband, welcomes him to their estate in full regalia and makes him look like a total buffoon. This scene was so delicious and deserved that it actually made me giggle.
Bess’s quick wit quickly becomes a defining character trait. After Bess deflates a catty aristocrat’s joke with a classical reference, the woman attempts to turn the tables, asking;
“Does [Drew] admire your pedantry, Lady Exford? I had not thought him to be attracted to female learning.”
Bess calmly replies,
“Oh, I think that he prefers it to female ignorance.”
In addition, she’s a competent estate manager and a clever thinker – all in all, a terrific heroine. I’m ambivalent about Drew though . He does improve as the story progresses, but I think he deserved a few more set-downs before Bess, blissed out on newlywed sex, stops zinging him. So much of his turnaround was based on finding Bess attractive upon his return, and I wanted more recognition from him of the awesomeness of inner Bess.
The mystery is interesting and held my curiosity. Drew cannot (he decides) tell Bess about his mission, so she can’t help but wonder as he flirts and neglects her at the spa town (told you he deserved more set-downs). The author establishes multiple believable villains and, equally importantly, Bess and Drew are as aware of them as we are. I can’t stand it when someone could literally be tying the protagonist to the train tracks and she thinks something like ‘Surely Glenda has a good reason for asking me to lie on this trestle!’
As always, I enjoyed Paula Marshall’s settings. She’s done her research and develops the places, people, activities, and such in a thorough and realistic way. She also writes with a level of formality in her word choice that, while obviously not authentic Elizabethan English, is still different enough from what I hear and use that it helps me feel transported into the story’s world.
My biggest criticism of this book is that I wanted the central relationship to continue as the comedy-of-manners it started as, but instead, it takes a backseat to the suspense plot in the second half. That isn’t all bad. In fact, if this book was part of a series where an already-emotionally committed couple solved crimes in Elizabethan England, I would have DIK’d it. As it is, The Deserted Bride is still a really enjoyable read.
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