This third instalment in Martha Waters’ Regency Vows series is, I think, my favourite so far. It’s a charming marriage-of-convenience romance between two characters we’ve already met – the rakishly charming and somewhat scandalous Lord Julian Belfry and the very proper Lady Emily Turner. It’s a delightful read; the prose flows effortlessly, the characterisation is excellent and the romance is superbly developed;and I especially enjoyed watching the transformation of Lady Emily from a rather reticent young woman into one who knows her own mind and isn’t afraid to express it.
Lord Julian Belfry, the second son of the Marquess of Eastvale, purchased a run-down theatre in a fit of youthful impetuousness and has since restored the building and the company, even going so far as to appear on stage himself when the mood takes him. Needless to say, such behaviour is highly shocking in the eyes of the ton, but Julian rather likes that his scandalous reputation prevents matchmaking mamas from throwing their eligible daughters at him. In the book’s prologue, which takes place several years before the story proper, his father, fearing that Julian’s less than pristine reputation will affect his sister’s chances on the marriage mart, orders Julian to sell the place – he’s had his fun, he’s made a tidy profit on his investment, and now it’s time to find an more respectable occupation. Even though a small voice deep inside can’t disagree with the Marquess’ comments about the fact that the Belfry has earned itself a rather sordid name over the past few years, or fail to recognise that his father has been remarkably indulgent with him, Julian nonetheless resents being given an ultimatum – sell the theatre, or be cut off from his family – and he refuses to sell.
Lady Emily Turner is in her sixth season, but unfortunately, her beautiful face and impressive lineage is not enough to compensate for the fact that her dowry is non-existent and her father is rumoured to have racked up massive gambling debts. She leads a stifling existence; her mother has, for years, drummed into her that her behaviour must be beyond reproach, and she knows that her parents are relying on her to prevent the family’s plunging into ruin. But after six years, she has only one real suitor, the somewhat odious Mr. Cartham, the man to whom she believes her father is indebted.
Emily and Julian met a few months before this story begins, when Emily’s friend and Diana (To Love and to Loathe) took her to a performance at the Belfry. In the months following, an odd friendship has grown between them and Julian has danced with her at balls and escorted her to the odd musicale, but recently, his behaviour has changed somewhat, leading Emily to believe a marriage proposal may be imminent. She’s correct. During Lord Willingham’s house party, Julian asks for Emily’s hand, telling her honestly that he isn’t in love with her, but that a match could be advantageous for both of them. He’s on a mission to clean up the Belfry’s reputation and turn it into somewhere gentlemen might take their wives rather than their mistresses, and wants Emily to use her society connections to promote the theatre to a more respectable clientele. In return, Emily will gain independence from her parents and won’t have to worry about Cartham’s attentions any more – in short, she’ll be free to live a life of her own choosing.
To Marry and to Meddle is smart, fun and sexy, but somehow feels ‘quieter’ than the other two books in the series. I don’t mean that in a negative way, far from it; rather that the barbed banter and games of one-upmanship that characterises those books is absent here, so the focus is more firmly on Julian and Emily learning how to be together, as Emily – with Julian’s help and support – is working out who she wants to be now she’s out from under the restrictions placed upon her by her parents, and Emily is helping Julian to work through the deep-seated anger and resentment he holds towards his father.
The chemistry between the pair is terrific and their romance is very nicely done. Friendship proves a solid basis for marriage; Emily and Julian clearly like each other a lot and they possess a good degree of insight into what makes the other tick. Before they marry, they both agree never to lie to one another – and they don’t, which leaves no room for a Big Mis. (Yay!) Instead, the conflict in the story comes mostly from Julian’s insistence that Emily be the irreproachable society wife she’s been brought up to be, while Emily wants to take an interest in the threatre and to tread a different path to the one previously laid out for her. Julian has become so focused on turning the Belfry into a respectable venue that he fails to see he’s trying to push Emily into a role she doesn’t really want, and that he’s also trying to be someone he’s not – and he stubbornly refuses to admit why.
Emily and Julian are sunny, endearing characters, and I liked them as individuals and a couple. Julian is a sexy hero with a dry sense of humour, who, despite his rakish reputation, is a good, kind man, and Emily is delightfully witty, unaffected and pragmatic.
Among the secondary cast are the couples from the previous books, together with Julian’s brother and sister, who are lovely, and his father, who, I was pleased to note, is not at all the sort of stock-in-trade tyrannical authoritarian who so often appears in romances where a father/son conflict is part of the story. That said, however, Eastvale being essentially decent does make it a bit harder to believe in the reasons behind his and Julian’s estrangement. That’s the only major quibble I have with the book; otherwise, To Marry and to Meddle is a thoroughly entertaining read and one I’m happy to recommend to anyone looking for a lively, character-driven historical romance.
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