The Marriage Contract
The well-known tale of the arranged marriage between the Scottish laird and the gently bred Englishwoman gets a fine telling in The Marriage Contract. With a resourceful heroine and a tenderhearted hero at its core, it makes for a very pleasant read.
It’s 1815 London, and Anne Burnett finds herself married by proxy to Aidan Black, Earl Tiebauld. Now, no one asked her for her opinion on the matter, but Anne’s two Seasons haven’t exactly been a success, and this arranged marriage is as good as it’s going to get. She’s the poor, orphaned relation and no one’s more eager to see her married off than her family. Anne’s not too sure, since Aidan’s rumored to be mad and more to the point, he doesn’t know he’s just gained a wife, but there is little she can do. Aidan’s sister, who has little time left to live, has arranged everything and now it falls to the new Lady Tiebauld to go to Scotland and give Aidan the news. Anne’s first encounter with her husband, however, doesn’t go as smoothly as she had hoped, and soon Aidan has formed a plan to make his unwanted wife run back to England of her own will.
As Anne endeavors to prove that she is a very suitable wife, Aidan has other concerns, namely his involvement with the group of Scots that want to revolt against the English. While Aidan has tried to limit his involvement as much as he can, it’s undeniable that by now his actions can definitely get him in trouble with the English soldiers patrolling the area. He is torn between his clan and the knowledge that any violence started by Scots will only result in a crushing defeat at the hand of the English, and now he has Anne to worry about. Although he soon comes to care for this stubborn woman who turns his life (and his home) upside down, he realizes the danger she’s facing at his side. Anne, who initially refuses to return to London because she dreads the life that awaits her there, soon falls in love with her husband and his people, and becomes an asset to him during times of danger.
Anne and Aidan have got to be one of the nicest couples I’ve read about in a long time, maybe too nice in Aidan’s case, especially in his dealings with the villain of the story, but they’re both delightful characters. The book is filled with humor, especially the scenes where Anne first arrives at Kelwin Castle and is appalled by the state of the place. The battle of wills that ensues over the future of the marriage provides insight into both their characters and motivations, but thankfully doesn’t go overboard into making Aidan cruel or turning Anne into a “spunky” heroine. There is a secondary romance between Deacon Gunn, one of Aidan’s clansmen, and Cora, a local girl Anne hires as a maid, although Deacon’s character is not as steady as Aidan’s, even toward the end of the book.
If there was a downside to The Marriage Contract it was that its pacing suffers during the last fifty pages. There are sudden confrontations, and then it feels like it runs out of story. There is an epilogue and an afterword that catch up with what happens to the secondary characters in the book, and deals with two other characters who I am guessing were heroines in previous books, but it feels tacked on, in contrast to the rest of the well-paced story. Overall, however, I enjoyed reading about Anne and Aidan, and whether you’re already familiar with Ms. Maxwell’s work or she is new to you, you’ll want to give this one a try.