Lady Emily Sedgely, separated from her husband and bored to distraction after years of solitude in the wilds of Yorkshire, is stirred by a sudden thirst for life and eagerly returns to London for the Season. Back in the swirl of society, she quickly warms to the attentions of an ardent young Frenchman—until a chance encounter with Baxter, her estranged husband, leaves her as confused as ever about her heart’s true longings.
Baxter, the Marquess of Sedgely, was given to dark moods and an uncertain temper that doomed his marriage. Finding relief in travel, he spent five years gallivanting the Continent and has now returned to London with a comely young mistress—and a dangerous secret. Cavalier about his safety, he discovers a far greater concern—for just one look at Emily stirs a realization that while his life may be in danger, it is his heart that faces a more immediate peril.
When Emily’s young French suitor arouses suspicions that he may not be all that he appears and a unknown assailant makes several attempts on Baxter’s life, the two are driven to protect each other and surrender to a passionate reawakening—and neither will rest until they are safely in the arms of the only person they’ve ever loved.
I got a bit carried away with this month’s prompt of “Kickin’ it Old School”, and actually read three books which could qualify – To Have and To Hold by Patricia Gaffney, Miss Wonderful by Loretta Chase and this, a traditional Regency I’ve had kicking around in paperback format for a while, but which was digitally re-issued last year.
Originally published in 2000 as Lady Delafont’s Dilemma, this is the story of an older couple – she’s thirty-six, he’s forty-two – whose marriage fell apart and who have been living separately for five years. For the last two of those years, they have been legally separated which is just about as close to divorce as it was possible to get back then, unless you were incredibly wealthy and influential.
There are aspects of the book that are probably going to be unpalatable to some readers (the husband has a mistress young enough to be his daughter, for example, and there are continual references to the fact that the heroine has put on a bit of weight) but if you can get past that, you’ll find a thoughtful exploration of what caused the breakdown of the couple’s marriage and the way in which they both come to realise that neither of them really fought for it as they should have done.
The story opens as Emily, the Marchoiness of Sedgely has just returned to London following a lengthy sojourn at the family estate in Yorkshire, where she has been, in effect, in mourning for the death of her marriage. Now, she’s ready to re-join the land of the living, and is determined to make a life for herself in London society. She may be past the first blush of youth, but she’s an attractive woman and not without admirers, the principal among which is a young Frenchman, Etienne Marchant.
Her estranged husband Baxter, who has also recently returned to London (but from the Continent) is surprised to see Emily at the theatre one evening, still pretty, vivacious and, he notes, rather plumper than he remembers. (In fact, there are numerous references to the fact that Emily has put on weight – her mother in law constantly harps at her to lose it so that Baxter will find her sufficiently attractive to want to return to her bed to get his heir – and although her weight-gain is often presented as a positive thing, it gets old very quickly.) Their eventual meeting is naturally strained, and Emily is shocked to discover that, while older and perhaps a little greyer, Baxter is as handsome as ever and that she is as physically attracted to him as she ever was.
Baxter is similarly affected by the sight of Emily. His friends may pat him on the back for having a lovely young mistress, but in truth, Baxter has been trying to find a way to break it off with her for some time and longs for the comfort and understanding to be found in the arms of a woman closer to his own age. More specifically, for the comfort and understanding he found with his wife. Belle Gallant is beautiful, but she’s also young and self-centred, and Baxter is well aware that she became his mistress because she felt she owed it to him following a kindness he did her that she couldn’t otherwise repay. He does come off as rather spineless here, actually – he didn’t want a mistress in the first place, but couldn’t find it in him to tell her “no”; and now he wants to end things and doesn’t have the balls to do it!
As a second-chance romance, Married to a Rogue works really well. This isn’t one of those stories of a marriage of convenience where the husband disappears after the wedding; no, Baxter and Emily were very much in love when they married. They had a lot in common, the sex was great – but after a few years when there were no children forthcoming, the rot started to set in. Emily began to withdraw, feeling that Baxter must be blaming her for her inability to conceive. He has no idea she’s blaming herself, but his poisonous mother’s constant needling over his lack of an heir and his unwillingness to tell the woman to take herself off to the dower house, plus the way Emily is gradually becoming a shadow of her former self – something Baxter finds difficult to watch and has no idea how to deal with – begin an insidious erosion of their relationship until, at its lowest point, Baxter more or less orders Emily to go to Yorkshire and stay there.
This aspect of the story is very well handled, and I thought was a splendid exploration of the way in which a relationship can break down for no one, big reason – like one partner having an affair – but through a series of smaller things and misunderstandings that are allowed to fester until eventually, they turn into wounds that are far too big to heal.
The couple’s reconciliation is just as well handled. I won’t say that they never fell out of love with each other, because I think it’s possible they did – but rather that their time apart has allowed them to gain a new appreciation for each other, without the strain of living together and the outside interference, and to prepare the ground for them to fall in love with each other again.
Where the book falls down is in its attempt to be too many things. As well as the central romance, there’s a secondary plotline in which Baxter’s work as a courier and part-time spy leads to several attempts on his life; Emily is considering a dalliance with the dashing young Etienne, who may not be exactly what he seems; and she’s also trying to protect a young woman from being forced into a distasteful marriage by her mercenary mother. This isn’t an overly long book, and while most of these points are satisfactorily resolved, they make it feel somewhat cluttered, and I’d have preferred to spend a little more time with Emily and Baxter.
Emily is terrific character, a warm, loving woman who saw her happy future fade away but who has now determined to pick up her life and get on with it. And even though Belle is the hero’s mistress, she’s surprisingly likeable and her intentions are good, even if she is a bit dim. Baxter, however is more problematic. He’s dark, brooding and rather aloof, the epitome of the very masculine romantic hero – yet he fails to see that his utterly obnoxious mother is making his wife’s life a misery and thus doesn’t stand up to her, AND when Belle first offers herself to him and he turns her down, he finds it too difficult to keep saying no, so she ends up as his mistress. He’s not an unattractive character, but his weakness in standing up to those two women – no matter the reason (he doesn’t want to hurt either of them, even his dreadful mother!) is difficult to get past.
If I were rating the book based solely on the romantic elements, then it would be a very strong B, because I thought the portrayal of deterioration of the Sedgely’s marriage was realistic and heartbreaking, and the author has written them in such a way that it’s easy to root for their reconciliation, which is also very convincing. But taken as a whole, what with all the other plot elements and the fact that the story is told from about six different viewpoints, I’m going to have to lower that a bit. I’d still recommend the book to anyone who enjoys a good, second-chance romance, but the other elements do detract a little from the main storyline.