The Rules of Engagement
The Rules of Engagement is a quick, engaging (see what I did there?) comedy of errors which features one of my favorite tropes – that of “friends-to-lovers.”
Hugh Trevalyn is a very attractive and charming young man who, in his desire to be able to flirt and enjoy his pleasures with the ladies without being pressured into marriage, invents a sickly fiancée, whom he cannot immediately marry for some, unspecified reason. He maintains this fiction for at least a dozen years (and one of my niggles with the story is how he manages to get away with it for that long), and by the time he reaches his mid-30s, he finally finds a young woman whose refusal of his amorous advances leads him to a real proposal of marriage.
The problem is that while Hugh has forgotten about the existence of his “fiancée,” the lovely Lucy Merriweather has not; and when Hugh tells her that the engagement is at an end, Lucy insists he introduce her to his ex so that she can see for herself that the poor woman has suffered no ill effects as a result of the end of their engagement.
As he is head-over-ears in lust, Hugh agrees, and then hot-foots it home to ask his oldest friend, Miss Amelia Grant to help him out by playing his fiancée for a few days so that he can allay Lucy’s concerns. Amelia is around the same age as Hugh and has been secretly in love with him for quite some time – but as his best friend she wants him to be happy and reluctantly agrees to the charade. And here’s another niggle – Amelia is obviously an attractive woman, so I find it hard to believe she remained unmarried into her thirties at a time when marriage was one of the very few options open to a woman of good birth. I imagine she was waiting for Hugh to come to his senses and see what was under his nose, but after a few years, wouldn’t she have had to accept it wasn’t going to happen and try to move on with her life?
Anyway. Hugh accompanies Amelia to London and introduces her to Lucy. He also introduces her to his younger and rakish cousin, Aubrey St. Clair, who is immediately – to Hugh’s horror – rather taken with her.
Of course Hugh is madly jealous (without realizing it) and warns Amelia off; and of course, she ignores him, which embroils her in a short-lived scandal. But all ends well – even though Hugh’s proposal while tipsy gets him a slap and a massive hangover, and Amelia’s annoyance with him leads her to indulge in some very aggressive topiary.
This novella has a lot going for it, despite the niggles I’ve already mentioned. Amelia is really the star of the piece, and I suspect that were she a less attractive character, I may not have liked Hugh very much, because for most of the story, he comes across as thoughtless, oblivious and driven completely by what’s between his legs instead of what’s between his ears.
What makes him likeable however, is the way he interacts with Amelia. They have known each other forever, so they speak their minds to each other, and they like arguing to the extent that they sometimes provoke each other on purpose, which I think is always a sign of imminent “couple-dom.”
I also liked the fact that Lucy wasn’t a mere plot-device, or presented as some evil schemer who was aware of Amelia’s feelings and determined to marry Hugh to spite her. She was genuinely concerned for the fate of Hugh’s ex-fiancée, even though her speeches about a woman’s need to be subservient and to maintain rigid propriety struck me as somewhat hypocritical, given her willingness to let Hugh drag her into a dark corner and kiss her on several occasions.
The relationship between Hugh and Amelia was well written, warm, and believable, and the author has a knack for dialogue which had me giggling on more than one occasion. I think the ending was a little rushed, but overall, this was an enjoyable, quick read and I would certainly consider reading more of Ms Leigh’s work.