The Unexpected Marriage of Gabriel Stone
I’ve enjoyed books by Louise Allen since way back, when I first read The Earl’s Intended Wife, which was partly set on Malta! She has a knack for inserting the unusual into the rather well-trodden paths of the regency romance genre, and she does not disappoint in The Unexpected Marriage of Gabriel Stone, the fourth and last instalment of the Lords of Disgrace series.
When you start reading the novel, this view of mine may strike you as strange, because the first scene is rather eye-roll inducing. After a night of gambling and carousing, Gabriel Stone, Earl of Edenbridge, is surprised by the news that a lady wants to talk to him and is awaiting him in his drawing room. She is Lady Caroline Holt, from whose father Gabriel won a small estate at cards the night before. The estate was meant for her younger brother, of whom she is fiercely protective, and Caroline asks Gabriel to return it. In recompense, she offers him her virginity. Caroline comes across as very naive at first, and the situation starts off as clichéd as it can get. Gabriel, more amused than aroused at that point, enquires how a future husband might react to her lack of virginity and finds out that the group of suitors her father has lined up is remarkably unappealing. On a whim, he agrees to Caroline’s bargain, but the debt is only to be paid after her engagement has been announced.
They meet once more at a ball, talk for some length of time, and exchange a kiss. The next thing Gabriel finds out is that Caroline is under great duress because, encouraged by him, she has refused the suitor her father has chosen for her. For some reason he feels he needs to check on her, and thus matters commence.
This is an event-driven story, less a character-driven one. But it works. The events are interesting, and the characters react to them in ways that highlight their inner growth, but of the two, Caroline interested me more. Very soon she admits to herself that she was driven as much by her own sexual desire in her attempt to seduce Gabriel as by concern for her brother. When the situation gets tough, she is able to act with more and more decisiveness. She and Gabriel share a strong practical streak, which leads to some very amusing scenes; and when this leads them on slippery moral ground, this is addressed – very rare in romance. Gabriel is the rather more stereotypical rake-who-pretends-to-be-irresponsible-to-hide-his-vulnerability type, but on the whole Louise Allen carries him off well. The one quibble I have is that the root on his problems, which stems from his youth, depends on a character trait which is plausible in a youngster, but which I do not admire in a grown man.
There are some appearances of the heroes and heroines of earlier instalments in the series, and while I was annoyed with the first one (it appears to be an overlapping scene with The Many Sins of Cris de Feaux, which I haven’t read), the others work very well because Gabriel’s friends play a true role in events. That said, the book ends in one of the most sickeningly sweet and pointless epilogues I have read in recent times, which I suggest you skip.
The novel’s greatest strengths lie in a clever mix of amusing, tender and serious scenes, and the highly fascinating insights it offers into Regency life that you don’t often come across. There is a glorious scene of bathing in Bristol, and some marvellous explorations of the mania for improving one’s estate that existed at the time. The sex scenes work very well, because they always take into account the development in the characters’ relationship, and are both sexy and tender.
On Louise Allen’s long list of likeable, not-quite-the-ordinary regency romances, The Unexpected Marriage of Gabriel Stone is another strong entry. The author remains on my autobuy list, and I plan to read the earlier instalments in this series.