Having really enjoyed the previous book in Jenni Fletcher’s Regency Belles of Bath series (Unexpectedly Wed to the Officer) I decided to continue on to book three – The Duke’s Runaway Bride – the story of a marriage-of-convenience that doesn’t quite go according to plan. It gets off to a bit of a rocky start, but was quite charming once it hit its stride – only to go off the rails in the final quarter with the sudden appearance of a contrived sub-plot in order to create some last-minute conflict that felt like so much padding.
In the previous book we met ‘Belinda Carr’ a young woman who seemed down on her luck and was taken in by the ladies of Belle’s Biscuit shop. Sensing there was more going on than met the eye, Henrietta and Nancy didn’t press Belinda for information, offering her friendship and a roof over her head. At the end of the book, however, she told Nancy the truth – that she’s really Beatrix Roxbury, the Duchess of Howden, and that she’d run away on her wedding day, intending to stay with her former governess in Bath – only to find she’d married and moved away. Beatrix explains the circumstances – her uncle sold her and her fortune to the duke in exchange for a title and consequence-by-association, and she was given no say in the matter. She met the duke only once before their wedding day and although he seemed decent enough, she didn’t want to marry him. Three months later, she feels guilty because he’s probably worried about her, so she writes to him (very much against Nancy’s advice) to tell him that she’s alive and well and living in Bath – and suggests they get an annulment or a divorce.
For Quinton – Quin – Roxbury, being Duke of Howden in the year since the death of his father has been a nightmare. The late duke nearly bankrupted them and Quin is working hard to turn things around while also overseeing all the projects for improvement he can now afford thanks to Beatrix’s money. His younger brother seems set on becoming a wastrel like their father, his mother complains incessantly, his younger siblings fight all the time… he’s beset on all sides and the only way he can deal with it is by locking away his own emotions and presenting a calm, unruffled face to the world.
He located his errant wife some time before he receives her letter, but thought it best to wait for her to come to him. Now that she has, he travels to Bath to see her and discuss her proposals, both of which are absolutely out of the question.
When she meets Quin again, Beatrix is completely thrown by his lack of anger and animosity towards her. Instead, he listens to her and shows a clear understanding of her situation; he apologises for not paying more attention to her before their wedding and assures her he had no idea she was unwilling, but he is also honest and upfront about having been in desperate need of her fortune to save his family estates. Not knowing how to react in the face of her husband’s calm demeanour, Beatrix confesses to a youthful indiscretion in the hope that it will encourage him to divorce her – but it doesn’t work. Quin calmly reiterates that he will not seek a divorce and makes a counter-proposal. Beatrix should come to live at Howden Hall for a period of three months – just so she can make sure she’s making the right decision (about staying in Bath) – and if, at the end of that time, she doesn’t want to remain, he will agree to a separation. Quin obviously hopes he will be able to talk her into staying, but Beatrix’s mind is made up. She wants her independence and her life at the Biscuit shop, among the people she’s come to regard as family – but she whittles Quin down to a period of six weeks and agrees to go, with no intention of allowing herself to be swayed.
I had trouble warming to Beatrix at first. There’s no question that she’s had a hard time of it; her uncle and aunt treated her like a commodity, she had no freedom, no friends – even her clothes were chosen for her. Yet here’s Quin – who would technically have been well within his rights to have dragged Beatrix away kicking and screaming – taking her opinion into account and giving her options, and she isn’t prepared to even meet him halfway. He understands her desire for independence and her misgivings about marriage – he even offers to return the rest of her dowry to her should they decide to separate. The only thing he will not agree to is a divorce – and he has good reasons for not wanting to mire his family in the scandal a divorce would inevitably entail. I found Beatrix’s intransigence to be a bit immature.
Once they arrive at Howden, however, and Beatrix sees what Quin is dealing with– especially from his mother who is a total bi-… er… gorgon – she starts to soften towards him and eventually to admit that while she wants to remain in Bath to bake biscuits, to be Quin’s duchess is to be a very lucky woman – not because of his material possessions, but because he’s a good, decent man who deserves to have the affection and support of those around him.
It will come as no surprise when I say that Beatrix and Quin do eventually fall for each other. They have good chemistry and are a well-matched pair; but the will-she/won’t she go back to Bath question wasn’t enough to make for a particularly interesting romance. The most vibrant parts of the story involved the brattish behaviour of Quin’s mother and sister – I came to look forward to watching them have tantrums because it livened things up a bit! Until Beatrix pulled a Mary Poppins and turned them into one, big happy family at one fell swoop.
But my biggest issue with the book as a whole is the fact that there just isn’t enough story to fill the page count. The ILYs have been exchanged by three-quarters of the way through, and Beatrix’s decision as to whether she’s going to stay or not is clear. So the author introduces a last-minute conflict just for the sake of it – which is then resolved so easily that it needn’t have been there at all.
As in Unexpectedly Wed to the Officer, the final chapter sets up the next story in the series, which will feature the fiery Nancy and her would-be-beau, who have been striking sparks off each other like mad whenever they’ve appeared in the other books. Here’s hoping those sparks will make for a stronger romance than The Duke’s Runaway Bride did.
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