James de Vere has always insisted on being perfectly pragmatic and rational in all things. It seemed the only way to deal with his overdramatic, greedy family. When he falls ill and no doctor in London can diagnose him, he returns home to Grace Hill in search of a physician who can–or to set his affairs in order.
Arriving at the doctor’s home, he’s surprised to encounter the doctor’s daughter Laura, a young woman he last saw when he was warning her off an attachment with his cousin Graeme. Alas, the doctor is recently deceased and Laura is closing up the estate, which must be sold off, leaving her penniless. At this, James has an inspiration: why not marry the damsel in distress? If his last hope for a cure is gone, at least he’ll have some companionship in his final days, and she’ll inherit his fortune instead of his grasping relatives, leaving her a wealthy widow with plenty of prospects.
Laura is far from swept off her feet, but she’s as pragmatic as James, so she accepts his unusual proposal. But as the two of them brave the onslaught of shocked and suspicious family members, they find themselves growing closer.
A Momentary Marriage is the sequel to Candace Camp’s A Perfect Gentleman, which is where we were introduced to Sir James de Vere and Miss Laura Hinsdale as secondary characters with no love lost between them. The prospect of a marriage of convenience between these two antagonists was an enticing one, and the idea of the coolly collected James being brought low by a strange illness lent an added piquancy to its appeal. Like its predecessor, the novel has a mystery woven through the principal romantic storyline, and while I can’t deny I’m reaching the stage when I’m starting to get just a bit tired of the tacked-on mystery that seems to have become almost de rigueur in historical romances, this one is integral to the story and doesn’t overshadow the development of the central relationship.
James, his cousin Graeme (hero of A Perfect Gentleman) and Laura have known each other since childhood, and, as teenagers, Laura and Graeme fell in love. But Graeme was the heir to an impoverished earldom and needed to marry an heiress; Laura was the daughter of a country doctor, and a match between them was impossible. It was James who, eleven years before, had gone to Laura and told her that she needed to let Graeme go so he could move on and do what needed to be done; and Laura, while heart-broken and not particularly well-disposed towards James, knew what he said was true and broke things off with the man she loved.
James de Vere is handsome, wealthy, charming and enigmatic; he’s witty and insightful, but reveals little of himself and is the sort of man who buries his emotions deep and needs to maintain control. He has no great love for his immediate family and bears ties of affection to nobody except his cousin and his mastiff, Demosthenes – Dem – who is his constant companion. But for some months now, he has been suffering from a mystery illness which is gradually getting worse, and none of the doctors he has seen can identify it or decide upon a treatment. The diagnoses run from a bad heart to brain fever to tumors, but the one thing the medical men do agree on is that James hasn’t long left to live.
He is preparing to leave London to spend the time left to him at his estate in the country when Graeme persuades him to seek advice from Doctor Hinsdale. James isn’t hopeful, but promises to do as his cousin asks, even though he’s tired and in pain and could do without making the detour to Canterbury. Unfortunately, however, he arrives to discover that the doctor died two weeks earlier and that Laura has been left in straitened circumstances. Knowing her to be a sensible, practical sort of woman, he makes a surprising suggestion that he believes will benefit them both.
James is the last person Laura expects to see, and the last man from whom she’d ever have thought to receive a proposal of marriage. At first she isn’t sure he’s serious, but as he calmly points out, if she marries him, she’ll be a widow before long and he will make sure she is well provided for so she need never worry about debts or where her next meal is coming from. He also tells her that he doesn’t want to leave everything he has to his grasping family; and that by marrying her, perhaps he is trying to atone for his past sins. And, in a moment of blunt, heartbreaking honesty:
“Or maybe I just don’t want to face the end alone.”
Being James, however, he has to ruin the moment by following that up with a sarcastic rejoinder, but Laura sees the vulnerability beneath the insouciance and accepts his proposal, determining to help him however she can.
When Laura meets James’ immediate family, she starts to understand why he isn’t keen on the idea of bequeathing them any more than he absolutely has to, and why he has asked her to serve as one of the trustees of the fund he has set up to provide for them after his death. Once home, James begins to weaken alarmingly, his strength depleted by a serious fever and worsening symptoms. Laura feels helpless, unable to find anything in her father’s medical books or notes that gives her any hope that James might recover, but she does everything she can to make him comfortable and tries not to give in to the despair she feels at the fact that this young, vital man she would like the opportunity to know better is slipping away from her. She keeps his family at bay and fights for him every way she can, but his condition continues to deteriorate – until she makes an unexpected discovery that puts a completely different complexion on things.
As this is a romance, I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to say that James doesn’t die; and I’ve already mentioned that there’s a mystery to be solved, which, of course, relates to his illness and what caused it. It’s quite an ingenious move on the author’s part, as she manages to give James a truly life-threatening condition while making it one from which he can plausibly recover. But once he is on the mend, he and Laura are presented with a completely different problem. She’d married him believing she would soon become a widow, but now they’re tied to each other for life, and Laura is sure she’s not the sort of wife James would have chosen had the circumstances been different. Yet the time they spent together during his illness has created an unexpected intimacy between them, and now, there’s no denying the fact that they’re attracted to each other and have been for some time.
The evolution of the central relationship as it moves from mutual wariness and uncertainty to respect, affection and – eventually – love, is very well done, with some deeply affecting and lump-in-throat moments along the way. The couple comes a long way from their old animosity and realises that they may have been guilty of a number of misjudgements in the past, and one of the things I liked the most about the story is that they are generally open and honest with one another. The fact that James – a man who doesn’t trust easily – instinctively knows that he can trust Laura with anything and everything, says a lot about the strength of their growing friendship, and I enjoyed their mutual teasing and that they could say more or less anything to each other. James doesn’t allow people to get emotionally close, either, and I was rooting hard tor Laura to break though those barriers and force him to confront the truth of his feelings for her.
A Momentary Marriage is a strongly written marriage of convenience story featuring a pair of attractive protagonists with great chemistry and a nice line in witty dialogue. The identity of the villain of the piece is not too obvious (although a small secondary cast helps narrow it down), and while some of the supporting characters are somewhat stereotypical – the bitter sister, the fortune-hunting admirer, the disaffected younger brother – they serve as a good contrast to Laura, whose concern for and support of James is genuine and selfless.
If, like me, you’re a fan of this particular trope, and are always on the lookout for good, new examples of it, then I’d say A Momentary Marriage will likely fit the bill.