When Grace Godwyn is introduced to her soon-to-be fiancé’s closest friend, she can hardly keep from fainting. The man whose angry gaze confronts her is none other than the handsome stranger who came to her aid in a dark French alleyway. The stranger with whom she’d shared a moment of reckless passion. And now, with a single word, he could destroy her one chance for security.
Julian St. John, Lord Knighton, owes his friend too much to allow him to fall into the clutches of a craven fortune hunter. He knows all he needs to know of Grace Godwyn: that she’s the orphaned and penniless daughter of a disgraced viscount; that her lips taste incomparably sweet. There is no way he is going to allow this marriage to take place.
Yet the more time Julian and Grace are forced to spend in each other’s company, the more irresistible their desire grows—and the more devastating the potential consequences.
Unlike the heroines of the other books in Amanda Weaver’s Grantham Girls series, the heroine of A Reluctant Betrothal is not an heiress. Grace Godwyn is the daughter of a viscount who gambled away his estate and fortune and who, following the death of her mother then she was four, spent her life living with her father in a succession of ever smaller, dingier homes, doing moonlit flits when he couldn’t find the money to pay the rent.
He died when Grace was fifteen, leaving her alone and with nowhere to go, when a letter arrived informing her of the recent death of a great aunt who had set aside some money for Grace to be “finished” under the tutelage of Lady Grantham. In this way, Grace made the acquaintance of Victoria and Amelia (heroines of the previous books in the series) who are now her dearest friends, and was able to spend a few years among people of her own class. But Grace’s lack of funds and desire to postpone matrimony for a while meant that she was never sought out and is now in the awkward position of being unable to seek paid employment – that was not the done thing for a viscount’s daughter – while not having any other way of supporting herself.
Not wishing to live off Lady Grantham’s charity, Grace is managing by acting as an unpaid companion to older ladies of the ton. It is not quite employment – Grace attends the ladies as their “guest” – but it at least provides a roof over her head and regular meals. Her current hostess is Lady Marlbury, who is currently on holiday in the small town of Menton in the South of France, and whose son, Frederick, shows signs of being interested in Grace.
Desperate to obtain security and stability, Grace decides to encourage his attentions, hoping to elicit a marriage proposal. She has resigned herself to not being able to marry for love and knows that her chances of making a decent match are dwindling away. But her determination is shaken by a chance encounter one evening during a festival, when she is passionately kissed by an unknown but handsome reveller to whom she feels an almost overwhelming attraction. Back in the real world, however, Grace consigns the kiss to fond memory and concentrates on coaxing a proposal from Frederick Musgrave. She is shocked and insulted when the proposal is not an honourable one and immediately flees back to England to seek help from Lady Grantham.
Julian St. John, the newly minted Earl of Knighton, is in the South of France to settle the affairs of his late, reprobate father. As the son of a man who ran off with his mistress and ignored his responsibilities to family and title, Julian has spent most of his life trying not to be tarred with the same brush and takes his duties very seriously. He is active in parliament and is currently the primary supporter of a project in London which is designed to provide housing for many of the city’s less well-off inhabitants. In this, he is aided by an old friend, Lady Honor Chatham, whose father is well-respected in the House and whose support is bound to go a long way towards smoothing Julian’s path in politics and will help him to further erase the memories of his father’s self-indulgent, dissolute behaviour.
When Julian returns to England, he is surprised to discover that one of his closest friends, Rupert Humphrey, is on the verge of becoming engaged to the lovely, but penniless Miss Godwyn. Julian doesn’t know her, but is immediately worried that his friend – a sweet, generous, open-hearted young man – has been targeted by a fortune hunter. His fears are confirmed when he is introduced to Miss Godwyn and recognises her as the young woman whom Frederick Musgrave had claimed was his mistress – and the woman with whom Julian had shared a passionate kiss on a balmy evening in Menton.
Julian immediately determines to separate Grace from Rupert, and at the same time tries to convince himself that the intense attraction to her he had felt in France has not come roaring back to life. It’s clear that the fascination is mutual, but neither Grace nor Julian is prepared to explore the possibility of a relationship. Grace is committed to Rupert and while Julian is not officially spoken for, there is a general understanding in society that he will offer for Lady Honor. This is rather similar to the storyline in the previous book (A Common Scandal) in which the hero was convinced he needed to marry someone other than the woman who was so obviously perfect for him. But thankfully, the similarities end there. Julian and Grace have to fight different battles to be together and the author does not rely on the initial misunderstandings between them to create dramatic tension. In fact, they are refreshingly honest with each other, even when they are trading veiled insults; the tension instead comes from their expectations – of themselves, each other and of society. Grace really wants to stand on her own two feet, but her only option if she is not to starve is marriage; Julian wants to expunge society’s memories of his father by being the most proper, upstanding gentlemen in existence. Both of them have a hard time adjusting those expectations, but eventually realise that their love for each other is the most important thing.
Ms. Weaver writes very well – although the occasional Americanism and modern turn of phrase do creep in – and the sense of longing that she creates between her protagonists is palpable. But Grace’s continual assertions that Julian doesn’t really want her and will eventually tire of her are presumptuous and frustrating to read, even given her instinct for self-protection. And while It’s true that she does come across as somewhat mercenary, her reasons are completely understandable given the lack of options open to women at this period. Julian is an attractive hero, in spite of his determination to believe the worst of Grace at the outset, and I do rather enjoy watching a stoic man coming unravelled when he falls in love. As characters, they are both flawed and have a lot to learn about themselves, but they grow throughout the course of the book and their HEA feels well-deserved.
A Reluctant Betrothal is an entertaining and engaging story from one of the strongest new voices in historical romance. I look forward to reading more from Amanda Weaver.