Desperate to escape his mother’s matchmaking, Vincent Hunt, Viscount Darleigh, flees to a remote country village. But even there, another marital trap is sprung. So when Miss Sophia Fry’s intervention on his behalf finds her unceremoniously booted from her guardian’s home, Vincent is compelled to act. He may have been blinded in battle, but he can see a solution to both their problems: marriage.
At first, quiet, unassuming Sophia rejects Vincent’s proposal. But when such a gloriously handsome man persuades her that he needs a wife of his own choosing as much as she needs protection from destitution, she agrees. Her alternative is too dreadful to contemplate. But how can an all-consuming fire burn from such a cold arrangement? As friendship and camaraderie lead to sweet seduction and erotic pleasure, dare they believe a bargain born of desperation might lead them both to a love destined to be?
Rating: A for narration; B for content
Vincent Hunt, Viscount Darleigh is just twenty-three and has been blind for the past six years, the result of a battlefield injury which also left him unable to hear. Returned to England both blind and deaf, he was terrified, enraged and prone to panic attacks. He believes he would have gone mad in those darkest days, had it not been for the constant care of George, Duke of Stanbrook, and the friendship of his fellow “survivors”, a group of seven friends who all sustained injuries in battle and who all spent time recovering and convalescing at Penderris, Stanbrook’s Cornwall Estate. Vincent’s hearing gradually returned, but not his sight, and he has learned, over the years, to cope extremely well and to be as self-sufficient as possible.
Although not in direct line for his title, Vincent inherited following the deaths of his uncle and cousin, and now resides at Middlebury Park in Gloucestershire. At the beginning of the story, however, he’s fled his home because he feels suffocated by the solicitousness of his mother and sisters. They mean well, of course, but their overprotectiveness and insistence on doing things for him he’s more than capable of doing for himself, together with his mother’s determination to get him married to a young woman who “doesn’t mind” (his blindness) as soon as possible is too much for him to bear. With the help of his former batman-turned-valet, Vincent takes himself to the peace and quiet of the Lake District for a few weeks, before heading to his former home, a small Somerset village by the name of Barton Coombs.
But even out of the way country villages have their share of marriage-minded mamas, and the wife of the local squire immediately determines to secure the wealthy young viscount for her daughter. Not above using underhand methods to trap him into marriage, the lady’s plans are thwarted by the intervention of her niece, Miss Sophia Fry. Sophia is very much a poor relation, and lives with her uncle and aunt where she’s treated little better than a servant.
When Vincent learns that Sophia’s actions on his behalf have caused her to be thrown out of her home, he does the only thing he can think of to help her – he proposes marriage. Sophia is astonished and refuses, assuring him that there is no need for such a drastic step. But he won’t take no for an answer, and eventually persuades her that she will be conferring as great a favour upon him by agreeing to his proposal as the other way around. He tells her of his mother’s determination to marry him off and of his own insistence that his wife be a woman he has chosen for himself – and how she will be able to help him to become more independent of his family. Still amazed that such a gorgeous man should want to marry her, Sophia nonetheless accepts his proposal. They discuss the things they each want from life; Vincent dreams of an independent life, and Sophie dreams of living in a cottage of her own, doing as she pleases – and come to a mutually agreeable arrangement. They will live together for one year and after that, Vincent will provide Sophie with her cottage and she will be free to leave. The only proviso is that at some point, she must give him an heir, assuming that she does not conceive during their first year together.
The Arrangement is a gently-moving and charming story of two seemingly unlikely people coming together and falling in love. Vincent and Sophia form a strong friendship as they discover numerous shared interests, and Sophia finds ways to change Vincent’s life for the better and to further his quest for greater independence. I’m not sure how realistic it is for her to have suggested that a dog could help him to get around on his own more as I know that the “guide dog” that we know today didn’t really come into existence until around the time of the First World War, but I suppose it’s not inconceivable that a dog could have been suitably trained in individual cases before then.
The romance is sweet and tender, and the characterisation of both leads is well-done. Vincent isn’t your usual historical hero – not only is he blind, he’s younger than most, and while he has some sexual experience, he’s not a seasoned rake or expert lover. Sophia is also young (only twenty) and grew up with a father who was a bit of a jack-the-lad, and whose recklessness eventually led to his being killed in a duel. A part of her believes he didn’t love her enough, or he wouldn’t have taken part in such a foolish endeavour, and added to that, at the age of fifteen, she developed a huge crush on young man who, in an attempt to cure her case of puppy love, completed the destruction of her self-esteem when he told her she wasn’t pretty enough or womanly enough to interest him.
While I’m often drawn towards books which are all about the love story – no spies, no mysteries, no evil relatives or secret babies – there nonetheless needs to be some sort of conflict in a romance so that the characters can be seen to have worked to get their happy ending. And that’s the big problem with this particular story – the conflict is provided by the nature of the arrangement to which the principals agree, and as such, it’s overly contrived. There are times throughout the story when Vincent admits what a stupid idea it was, because he realises he’s falling for his wife and doesn’t want to let her go; and while Sophie is falling just as hard, her insecurities cause her to believe she’s not a fit wife for such a handsome gentleman, and she is adamant that doesn’t want to suffocate him as the other women in his life have done. She is grimly determined to give him the independence he said he wanted.
But the depth of feeling between the couple is so strong that there’s never any doubt about the outcome. Of course, it’s always obvious who is going to end up with whom in practically every romantic novel ever written, and the reader knows that no matter what crap the characters have to go through, there will be a happy ending . But this was one of those times when the path to true love ran very smooth indeed, which ended up making the whole feel a little flat. That said, I suppose it’s no small tribute to Ms Balogh’s writing that strength of the bond between her two protagonists is so immediately apparent and so palpable that it was inconceivable that the pair wouldn’t find a way to dispense with their stupid arrangement!
I listened to the audiobook version of this, narrated by the incomparable Rosalyn Landor, who has now narrated the next two books in the series, and will, I hope, continue with it. Her affinity with the material is practically unparalleled and her gorgeous, velvety-smooth voice is just as suited to rendering youthful heroines as it is gnarly old dowagers and unpleasant social-climbing aunts. All the bit players – servants, villagers and the local gentry – are expertly differentiated, and she gives Vincent an attractive lightness of tone which points at once to his youth. The various members of the Survivor’s Club are easily identifiable and distinguishable from each other, and the narrative is as beautifully performed and well-paced as I’ve come to expect.
I can’t fault Ms Landor’s performance in any way, and I suspect it contributed much to my overall enjoyment of the story. The writing is very accomplished of course, although I did notice that the author lapses into long passages of introspection in the middle of the action at various points, which I did find somewhat jarring.
But overall, this is an enjoyable audiobook, if not an outstandingly good one. It’s worth listening to for Rosalyn Landor’s superb performance, although I don’t think it’s an especially strong entry in this series in terms of the storyline.