Although this is book two in Jenni Fletcher’s Regency Belles of Bath series, I didn’t feel I’d missed anything by not having read book one (An Unconventional Countess), as the author incorporates everything I needed to know about the events of that story into this one. Unexpectedly Wed to the Officer is a charming character-driven romance between two strongly characterised and attractive leads whose relationship evolves organically from a well-developed friendship, and – another bonus for those, who like me, are always keen to read historicals featuring non-aristocratic characters – are a (former) sailor and a shopkeeper. They do have some connection to the nobility, it’s true, but they are both people who work for a living.
Henrietta Gardiner is the manager of Belle’s biscuit shop in Bath, where she was formerly the assistant to its owner, Anna Fortini. Now that Anna is happily married – to an earl, no less (see book one) – Henrietta runs the business with the help of Nancy, an outspoken, no-nonsense young woman who clearly has Henrietta’s best interests at heart – especially after Henrietta’s reputation was maligned when she was accused of trying to entrap a young man into marriage. In fact, Henrietta’s beauty, combined with her status as a ‘shopgirl’, has attracted the wrong kind of attention once too often, and she is determined never to allow a man to mistake good manners for encouragement again; she’s decidedly wary of anyone who tries to compliment or sweet-talk her, and makes a point of dressing plainly to the point of dowdiness.
Sebastian Fortini – Anna’s brother – has been away at sea for a number of years, and arrives home very late one night. Not wishing to disturb anyone, he enters the shop using his key with the intention of sleeping in a chair – only to be hit in the face by an opening door and then confronted by a vision in a white nightgown wielding a pair of fireplace tongs. Fortunately for all concerned, mistakes are quickly corrected, but Sebastian is rather disconcerted when he learns of all the changes that have taken place; he never received any of his sister’s most recent letters (for reasons we learn later on) so to find she’s married and has left Bath and the business comes as something of a shock. Not only that, he’d come home – discharged from the navy after Trafalgar – intending to help Anna run the business, but now it seems he’s surplus to requirements at home as well. The feeling that he’s free of family obligations, naval orders and commitments is one he hasn’t experienced in many years, and it’s one that fills him with exuberance… but now he’ll have to come up with a new plan for what’s next.
Sebastian decides his first order of business is to travel north to see Anna and his mother, so he makes arrangements to travel the day after next… but changes his plans when he learns that Henrietta’s recently widowed brother has disappeared and abandoned his three young sons to her care. He fully appreciates Henrietta’s cool-headedness and her ability to manage the bakery, but he also sees she’s in danger of being overwhelmed, and I really liked the way he just steps in to help and support Henrietta without being all take-charge and ‘I know best’.
Henrietta makes it clear that she is not interested in anything more than friendship with Sebastian, and even though he’s strongly attracted to her, he takes her at her word, even going out of his way to make sure she feels comfortable around him. The author develops a lovely, genuine friendship between them which is underpinned by the mutual attraction that’s been bubbling since they met. I loved watching their feelings for one another grow and strengthen, and the way Sebastian’s kindness and honourable nature gradually erase Henrietta’s distrust.
I appreciated the way Ms. Fletcher has Sebastian explore and come to terms with his feelings of guilt over leaving home to join the navy, and she writes Henrietta’s nephews very well so they come off as real people rather than plot-moppets. I found the eleventh-hour conflict a bit contrived, but the knee-jerk reactions to it by both Henrietta and Sebastian made sense given what we know about them, and fortunately, the misunderstanding isn’t allowed to continue for very long. (The epilogue, for those who care about such things, doesn’t feature Sebastian and Henrietta at all, but is a chapter setting up the next book in the series.)
There’s a well-drawn secondary cast, I enjoyed the gentle humour of the dialogue, and I loved Sebastian, who is the best kind of beta hero; kind and considerate, sexy without really knowing it and able to step up and do what needs to be done without being flashy or overbearing.
Unexpectedly Wed to the Officer is a delightful romance between two decent, caring people who find, in each other, someone who helps them to work out who they really are and where they want to be in life. It’s a lovely, feel-good read with depth and emotional subtlety, and I’m happy to recommend it.
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