A Rumored Engagement by Lily George

I’m a sucker for second-chance-at-love stories. I have autobuy authors I love and certain settings catch my eye, but when I’m taking a chance on a new author, favorite plotlines will often call my name. And second chance stories are definitely near the top of my list, with friends-to-lovers being a close second. For favorite tropes month on the TBR Challenge, I read A Rumored Engagement, a 2014 historical from Lily George. Though published as part of the Love Inspired Historical line, I suspect fans of Regency trads might like this one as well.

As the story opens, Susannah Siddons and her sisters prepare to open a millinery shop in the village of Tansley. Upon arrival, they run into a mishap with their door and when a man from the past comes to their rescue, we quickly learn about Susannah’s long-forgotten engagement to Daniel Hale of Goodwin Hall. The two had become engaged in part to help Susannah escape the plotting of the tyrannical uncle who was her guardian. However, Daniel took off to sea before any wedding could take place. Now, a few years later, Susannah and her sisters find themselves quite alone in the world. While gently born, their guardian spent all their inheritance and they now must work to earn a living.

It is obvious from the start that Susannah feels deeply responsible for her two younger sisters. She’s not the perfect, sweet martyr heroine, though. When she learns that Daniel Hale is not only back from his voyages but is now the master of Goodwin Hall, readers see her mixed emotions. Attraction, apprehension, and definitely some bitterness at her fate all creep through. In a way, I found it refreshing because this all shows Susannah to be quite human.

As the Siddons sisters get settled, Daniel can’t seem to stay out of their lives. Even though he was the one who essentially ran out on his childhood friend/fiancee, he also seems to have trouble coming to terms with what he believes, who he is, what he wants out of life. And as he muddles through some of these questions, he can’t seem to stay away from Susannah. She works very hard to make the shop a success and Daniel often shows himself to be a great friend and support to her.

The two quickly rekindle a rather uneasy friendship, and the spark of something more often hovers. Unfortunately, in a gossipy small village like Tansley, word can spread quickly. Word of the prior engagement with Daniel and the sight of the unmarried young woman keeping company with him are exactly the sort of things that can damage a businesswoman’s reputation in that time and place. We see Susannah having to fight extra hard to maintain her reputation and by extension, the viability of her business.

While Susannah could often come off as prickly and independent to the point of pushing others aside, I could understand her even as she frustrated me. After all, if she did not remain above reproach, respectable people might not frequent her business – a circumstance that could spell ruin and starvation for her and her sisters. The author does a good job of showing readers how much the sisters have to struggle to stay afloat.

Daniel’s change of heart was something that I found a little less convincing. I could believe that he had matured and grown more thoughtful. However, he seems to resolve his inner existential crisis a bit too abruptly. Or at least it seems this way to the reader as we do not get as clear a window into his thinking. He seems to be a likable hero but he never fully sprang to life for me. As a result, the romance between Daniel and Susannah felt a little muted as well.

A Rumored Engagement features a plot that is somewhat different than the usual Regency historical. While it’s not perfect, it does have its pleasant moments and it does feature characters outside the aristocracy. If, like me, you enjoy second chance at love stories, you may want to try this one.

– Lynn Spencer

Grade: B-                                                                                         Sensuality Level: Kisses

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The Wedding Journey by Carla Kelly

For June’s prompt of Favourite Trope, I turned to Carla Kelly’s The Wedding Journey, the story of a marriage of convenience made during wartime in order to protect the heroine from the threat of being sold off in marriage to pay her father’s debts.  In the hands of this author, however, the story is so much more than the story of two people thrust unexpectedly into marriage; set amid the slaughter and chaos of the Peninsular War, it’s also a story of the struggle to survive against the odds and of how the most ordinary person can call on reserves deep inside to achieve the truly extraordinary.

Elinore Mason  – Nell – has followed the drum for as long as she can remember.  Her father, a captain, is a hard drinker and gambler who doesn’t spare a moment’s thought for his wife and daughter – other than for what they can do for him – and the time Nell doesn’t spend with her ailing mother is spent in the hospital tent, tending to the sick and wounded and helping however she can.  Captain Jesse Randall is a highly competent surgeon, widely respected, well-liked, but quiet and shy – and has been hopelessly in love with Nell for years.

The smarmy Major William Bones also has his eye on Nell, but his intentions are not at all honourable.  After Nell’s mother dies, her father, who is deeply in debt to Bones, agrees to give Nell to him as payment – but to prevent this, Jesse steps up and offers to marry her instead.  He doesn’t have any hope that Nell will ever return his love, but he knows she likes him well enough; and in any case, they can have the marriage annulled at a later date.

Bones, furious at having Nell snatched away from him exacts his revenge in a most appalling way.  With the army preparing to retreat from Burgos into Portugal, Marching Hospital Number Eight is packed up and ready to go the next morning – and awakens to discover that they have been abandoned thanks to Bones’ machinations.  The unit’s commanding officer, Major Sheffield, Jesse and Nell are left with a handful of sick soldiers and army stragglers to fend for themselves and make their own way into Portugal without transport, supplies or protection – and with the French army not far behind them.

The Wedding Journey is probably the most unusual marriage of convenience story I’ve ever read.  Jesse and Nell are both likeable, sensible and determined people and there’s never really any question that they are meant to be together, but the circumstances in which they find themselves continually test them and the bonds they forge as they face danger, sickness, great tragedy and even a madman are perhaps all the stronger for everything that they are forced to go through together.

As is the case with all of Carla Kelly’s books set during the Napoleonic Wars, she doesn’t sugar-coat the difficulties her small band of brothers are facing and nor does she pull her punches when it comes to gritty reality, unafraid to show the terrible consequences of war in all its dirt, blood and horror.  But while the odds against Jesse and Nell are overwhelming, Ms. Kelly still manages to find time for them to talk and learn about each other and even to share the odd joke to lighten the mood.

The book is narrated almost entirely by Jesse, who is, quite simply, the most adorable beta hero.  He’s a ginger-haired Scot, with a dry sense of humour – his inner monologue with Hippocrates is funny and allows us to learn quite a lot about him – he’s resourceful, kind and protective, and is thoroughly dedicated to doing the best for those under his care.  He’s also got a steel backbone and an innate authority that he doesn’t use very often and didn’t really know he had, but which makes him a natural leader and someone who inspires trust in others and makes them want to do their best for him. With the bulk of the story told from his PoV, the reader is able to really connect with him and to see and understand the depth of his compassion and his love for Nell, whom he would do absolutely anything to keep safe.

We don’t spend as much time in Nell’s PoV, so she feels a little less well-developed, but it’s easy to see that she’s clever, strong and resilient and that she’s a little bit smitten with Jesse, but, believing herself to have nothing to offer him besides bad luck and a wastrel father, hadn’t ever thought to look for anything more than friendship.  But as they journey through a Spain laid waste by two opposing armies, she comes to love him as he loves her, the respect and admiration she has long-felt for him morphing into something far deeper.

I suppose the one criticism I can level at the book is that the adventures and misadventures of Marching Hospital Number Eight overshadow the romance somewhat.  Jesse and Nell have so much to deal with that although they spend a lot of time together and clearly make a great team, they don’t have a lot of time to explore their feelings for each other or their new relationship.

The Wedding Journey encompasses high-stakes drama, tragedy, trauma and a very realistic portrait of the sufferings wrought by war, but at the same time, it’s uplifting and imbued with warmth and humour.  The love story between Nell and Jesse is tender and sweet and the writing is intelligent and devoid of sentimentality and yet emotionally satisfying.

– Caz Owens

Grade: B+                 Sensuality: Subtle

Buy Now: A/BN/iB/K