The Secret Marriage Pact
Georgie Lee continues her Business of Marriage series with The Secret Marriage Pact, a friends-to-lovers story which reunites two childhood friends after almost a decade apart. Jane Rathbone and Jasper Charton were almost inseparable as children, but the nine years Jasper has spent in America have changed him and he has returned home a troubled man, weighed down by guilt he is unable to shake off and secrets he is unable to share.
We first met Jane as a teenager in A Debt Paid in Marriage and now, almost a decade later, she’s a shrewd, intelligent young woman of twenty-three with an eye for a bargain and almost as good a head for business as her brother, Phillip. Unfortunately, however, she has recently become the subject of ridicule because her fiancé – Jasper’s brother, Milton – eloped with another woman just two weeks before he and Jane were due to be married. While Jane isn’t exactly heartbroken – she wasn’t in love with Milton, but she’d liked the idea of having a husband who was a friend – she’s furious about being made a laughing-stock. This leads her to bid against him at a property auction and to buy the Fleet Street building he had been bidding for – but her satisfaction at beating him is short lived when she learns he had actually been acting for Jasper, recently returned from America and who wanted the property in order to start a business.
Jane is thrilled but also wary of meeting Jasper again after all these years. As children, she and the Charton brothers were extremely close, forever running around together causing mayhem and creating mischief, but things changed when, at fifteen, Jasper was told he would be going to Savannah to learn the cotton business from his maternal uncle. Jane had already realised she felt more than friendship for Jasper and told him before he left that she would wait for him, but he didn’t think he’d ever return and rebuffed her.
Now, however, Jane is determined not to accept rebuffs or excuses and instead conceives a plan which could help both of them. Jasper wants the building she purchased and she wants freedom from the restrictions she has to endure as a single woman. Getting married would mean they could both get what they want while working together to establish Jasper’s business venture.
Their old connection is as strong as ever – although now, it comes with the added piquancy of mutual sexual attraction – but Jasper is astonished at Jane’s proposal and equally surprised to find himself tempted by it. Even though he told her not to wait for him when he left, he has never forgotten her and continues to harbour feelings for her that go beyond friendship. But the things he has seen and done in the last nine years have profoundly affected him, and the last thing he wants to do is to weigh her down with his secrets and corrupt her the same way the life he’s led has corrupted him.
Yet he starts to think that Jane might be the one person who can stop him from ending up like his uncle; dissipated, lonely and disillusioned. He decides to take a risk and tell her the truth about the past nine years – well, about some of it – and her understanding and compassion, the fact that she doesn’t recoil or reject him bring him to the realisation that she’s worth fighting his doubts and demons for, and that if he’s careful, he can have her while also holding back the truth of the worst of his past misdeeds.
We learn fairly early on that while Jasper’s parents believed he was going to learn to run a cotton plantation in Savannah, his uncle’s business was nothing of the sort, and he was in fact making his money as the owner of a highly successful gambling business. At first, Jasper found it all exhilarating and was eager to learn, but as the time wore on and he saw how ruthless his uncle could be, his lack of concern for the desperation of men wagering everything and his disinclination to stop them, Jasper’s distaste for what he was doing began to grow and he became disgusted with himself for being a part of it. But it’s all he knows, and he returns to England with only one way to make enough money to be able to start a legitimate business. Knowing how upset and disappointed his parents would be if they had the faintest inkling of what he is doing, Jasper has to keep the truth of his time in America from them as well as stop them from finding out that he is currently running a gambling hell in a shady area of London. Living a double life takes a heavy toll on Jasper both mentally and physically – so it’s not hard to understand why he would see Jane as a lifeline. Before agreeing to the marriage, Jasper comes (mostly) clean with Jane about the nature of his business and makes it very clear that if she does marry him, she’ll have to become part of his deception and will have to lie to friends and family so as to keep his secrets until such time as he can free himself of them.
I really appreciated the fact that Jasper is pretty upfront with Jane right from the start and that, for the most part, they communicate well. But he clings to the belief that he can compartmentalise and continue to keep some secrets from Jane while simultaneously allowing her to be his partner in both his business and his life… which points the way toward the marital discord that occurs later in the book. Jasper’s intense weariness and his desire to keep Jane firmly away from the part of him he hates lead to her feeling shut out, and her own insecurities – she has abandonment anxiety owing to her belief that she was responsible for the deaths of her parents – naturally magnify her concerns.
The conflict created by Jasper’s persistence in trying to keep things from Jane works well as a way of ramping up the tension between the couple later in the book; and while not all of his reasoning is sound, the desire at the root of his decisions – to protect those closest to him – is admirable. But I didn’t like that the author felt it necessary to give Jane a matching past tragedy; it felt completely unnecessary given that Jasper was already carrying enough guilt and self-loathing for two. There’s also too much dwelling – by both characters – on their shame and unworthiness; Ms. Lee establishes these things very well, but then continues to hammer them home so that, by the time I was into the second half of the book, I was getting a little tired of the wallowing.
On the whole, though, The Secret Marriage Pact is a strongly written and enjoyable read that should appeal to anyone looking for an historical romance in which the characters work for a living and are not part of high society. The principals are likeable and easy to root for, and Ms. Lee quickly establishes a strong emotional connection between them as well as creating a pleasantly simmering sexual tension which they get to explore in a few well-written, steamy love scenes. I could have done without some of the guilt-trips, but I enjoyed the book overall.