The Duke’s Runaway Bride (Regency Belles of Bath #3) by Jenni Fletcher

This title may be purchased from Amazon

From shopkeeper…

To Duke’s wife

When Beatrix, Duchess of Howden, writes to her estranged husband offering a divorce, she’s stunned when he arrives on her doorstep with a different proposition: a six-week marriage trial! Quinton Roxbury seems cold and inscrutable, but Beatrix gradually realises his rough exterior hides a heavy burden. As their connection deepens, dare she trust him with her own scandalous past and risk the marriage she never knew she wanted?

Rating: C+

Having really enjoyed the previous book in Jenni Fletcher’s Regency Belles of Bath series (Unexpectedly Wed to the Officer) I decided to continue on to book three – The Duke’s Runaway Bride – the story of a marriage-of-convenience that doesn’t quite go according to plan.  It gets off to a bit of a rocky start, but was quite charming once it hit its stride – only to go off the rails in the final quarter with the sudden appearance of a contrived sub-plot in order to create some last-minute conflict that felt like so much padding.

In the previous book we met ‘Belinda Carr’ a young woman who seemed down on her luck and was taken in by the ladies of Belle’s Biscuit shop.  Sensing there was more going on than met the eye, Henrietta and Nancy didn’t press Belinda for information, offering her friendship and a roof over her head.  At the end of the book, however, she told Nancy the truth – that she’s really Beatrix Roxbury, the Duchess of Howden, and that she’d run away on her wedding day, intending to stay with her former governess in Bath – only to find she’d married and moved away.  Beatrix explains the circumstances – her uncle sold her and her fortune to the duke in exchange for a title and consequence-by-association, and she was given no say in the matter.  She met the duke only once before their wedding day and although he seemed decent enough, she didn’t want to marry him.  Three months later, she feels guilty because he’s probably worried about her, so she writes to him (very much against Nancy’s advice) to tell him that she’s alive and well and living in Bath – and suggests they get an annulment or a divorce.

For Quinton – Quin – Roxbury, being Duke of Howden in the year since the death of his father has been a nightmare.  The late duke nearly bankrupted them and Quin is working hard to turn things around while also overseeing all the projects for improvement he can now afford thanks to Beatrix’s money. His younger brother seems set on becoming a wastrel like their father, his mother complains incessantly, his younger siblings fight all the time… he’s beset on all sides and the only way he can deal with it is by locking away his own emotions and presenting a calm, unruffled face to the world.

He located his errant wife some time before he receives her letter, but thought it best to wait for her to come to him.  Now that she has, he travels to Bath to see her and discuss her proposals, both of which are absolutely out of the question.

When she meets Quin again, Beatrix is completely thrown by his lack of anger and animosity towards her.  Instead, he listens to her and shows a clear understanding of her situation; he apologises for not paying more attention to her before their wedding and assures her he had no idea she was unwilling, but he is also honest and upfront about having been in desperate need of her fortune to save his family estates.  Not knowing how to react in the face of her husband’s calm demeanour, Beatrix confesses to a youthful indiscretion in the hope that it will encourage him to divorce her – but it doesn’t work.  Quin calmly reiterates that he will not seek a divorce and makes a counter-proposal.  Beatrix should come to live at Howden Hall for a period of three months – just so she can make sure she’s making the right decision (about staying in Bath) – and if, at the end of that time, she doesn’t want to remain, he will agree to a separation.  Quin obviously hopes he will be able to talk her into staying, but Beatrix’s mind is made up.  She wants her independence and her life at the Biscuit shop, among the people she’s come to regard as family – but she whittles Quin down to a period of six weeks and agrees to go, with no intention of allowing herself to be swayed.

I had trouble warming to Beatrix at first. There’s no question that she’s had a hard time of it; her uncle and aunt treated her like a commodity, she had no freedom, no friends – even her clothes were chosen for her.  Yet here’s Quin – who would technically have been well within his rights to have dragged Beatrix away kicking and screaming – taking her opinion into account and giving her options, and she isn’t prepared to even meet him halfway.  He understands her desire for independence and her misgivings about marriage – he even offers to return the rest of her dowry to her should they decide to separate.  The only thing he will not agree to is a divorce – and he has good reasons for not wanting to mire his family in the scandal a divorce would inevitably entail.  I found Beatrix’s intransigence to be a bit immature.

Once they arrive at Howden, however, and Beatrix sees what Quin is dealing with– especially from his mother who is a total bi-… er… gorgon – she starts to soften towards him and eventually to admit that while she wants to remain in Bath to bake biscuits, to be Quin’s duchess is to be a very lucky woman – not because of his material possessions, but because he’s a good, decent man who deserves to have the affection and support of those around him.

It will come as no surprise when I say that Beatrix and Quin do eventually fall for each other.  They have good chemistry and are a well-matched pair; but the will-she/won’t she go back to Bath question wasn’t enough to make for a particularly interesting romance.  The most vibrant parts of the story involved the brattish behaviour of Quin’s mother and sister – I came to look forward to watching them have tantrums because it livened things up a bit! Until Beatrix pulled a Mary Poppins and turned them into one, big happy family at one fell swoop.

But my biggest issue with the book as a whole is the fact that there just isn’t enough story to fill the page count.  The ILYs have been exchanged by three-quarters of the way through, and Beatrix’s decision as to whether she’s going to stay or not is clear. So the author introduces a last-minute conflict just for the sake of it – which is then resolved so easily that it needn’t have been there at all.

As in Unexpectedly Wed to the Officer, the final chapter sets up the next story in the series, which will feature the fiery Nancy and her would-be-beau, who have been striking sparks off each other like mad whenever they’ve appeared in the other books.  Here’s hoping those sparks will make for a stronger romance than The Duke’s Runaway Bride did.

Unexpectedly Wed to the Officer (Regency Belles of Bath #2) by Jenni Fletcher

This title may be purchased from Amazon

From shopkeeper…

To officer’s wife

With a scandal in her past, shopkeeper Henrietta Gardiner has become wary of men, including her friend’s brother, dashing officer Sebastian Fortini. When Henrietta is called upon to take in her three young nephews, Sebastian is on hand to help her, even offering a convenient marriage as a solution! Henrietta starts to realise her new husband’s carefree exterior hides a more intriguing interior…but where will that leave their hasty marriage?

Rating: B+

Although this is book two in Jenni Fletcher’s Regency Belles of Bath series, I didn’t feel I’d missed anything by not having read book one (An Unconventional Countess), as the author incorporates everything I needed to know about the events of that story into this one.  Unexpectedly Wed to the Officer is a charming character-driven romance between two strongly characterised and attractive leads whose relationship evolves organically from a well-developed friendship, and – another bonus for those, who like me, are always keen to read historicals featuring non-aristocratic characters – are a (former) sailor and a shopkeeper.  They do have some connection to the nobility, it’s true, but they are both people who work for a living.

Henrietta Gardiner is the manager of Belle’s biscuit shop in Bath, where she was formerly the assistant to its owner, Anna Fortini.  Now that Anna is happily married – to an earl, no less (see book one) –  Henrietta runs the business with the help of Nancy, an outspoken, no-nonsense young woman who clearly has Henrietta’s best interests at heart – especially after Henrietta’s reputation was maligned when she was accused of trying to entrap a young man into marriage.  In fact, Henrietta’s beauty, combined with her status as a ‘shopgirl’, has attracted the wrong kind of attention once too often, and she is determined never to allow a man to mistake good manners for encouragement again; she’s decidedly wary of anyone who tries to compliment or sweet-talk her, and makes a point of dressing plainly to the point of dowdiness.

Sebastian Fortini – Anna’s brother – has been away at sea for a number of years, and arrives home very late one night.  Not wishing to disturb anyone, he enters the shop using his key with the intention of sleeping in a chair – only to be hit in the face by an opening door and then confronted by a vision in a white nightgown wielding a pair of fireplace tongs.  Fortunately for all concerned, mistakes are quickly corrected, but Sebastian is rather disconcerted when he learns of all the changes that have taken place; he never received any of his sister’s most recent letters (for reasons we learn later on) so to find she’s married and has left Bath and the business comes as something of a shock.  Not only that, he’d come home – discharged from the navy after Trafalgar – intending to help Anna run the business, but now it seems he’s surplus to requirements at home as well.  The feeling that he’s free of family obligations, naval orders and commitments is one he hasn’t experienced in many years, and it’s one that fills him with exuberance… but now he’ll have to come up with a new plan for what’s next.

Sebastian decides his first order of business is to travel north to see Anna and his mother, so he makes arrangements to travel the day after next… but changes his plans when he learns that Henrietta’s recently widowed brother has disappeared and abandoned his three young sons to her care. He fully appreciates Henrietta’s cool-headedness and her ability to manage the bakery, but he also sees she’s in danger of being overwhelmed, and I really liked the way he just steps in to help and support Henrietta without being all take-charge and ‘I know best’.

Henrietta makes it clear that she is not interested in anything more than friendship with Sebastian, and even though he’s strongly attracted to her, he takes her at her word, even going out of his way to make sure she feels comfortable around him.  The author develops a lovely, genuine friendship between them which is underpinned by the mutual attraction that’s been bubbling since they met. I loved watching their feelings for one another grow and strengthen, and the way Sebastian’s kindness and honourable nature gradually erase Henrietta’s distrust.

I appreciated the way Ms. Fletcher has Sebastian explore and come to terms with his feelings of guilt over leaving home to join the navy, and she writes Henrietta’s nephews very well so they come off as real people rather than plot-moppets.  I found the eleventh-hour conflict a bit contrived, but the knee-jerk reactions to it by both Henrietta and Sebastian made sense given what we know about them, and fortunately, the misunderstanding isn’t allowed to continue for very long. (The epilogue, for those who care about such things, doesn’t feature Sebastian and Henrietta at all, but is a chapter setting up the next book in the series.)

There’s a well-drawn secondary cast, I enjoyed the gentle humour of the dialogue, and I loved Sebastian, who is the best kind of beta hero;  kind and considerate, sexy without really knowing it and able to step up and do what needs to be done without being flashy or overbearing.

Unexpectedly Wed to the Officer is a delightful romance between two decent, caring people who find, in each other, someone who helps them to work out who they really are and where they want to be in life.   It’s a lovely, feel-good read with depth and emotional subtlety, and I’m happy to recommend it.

The Viscount’s Veiled Lady (Whitby Weddings #3) by Jenni Fletcher

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

A lady hidden from society

A viscount with his own secrets…

When Frances Webster meets brooding Arthur Amberton on Whitby shore he’s a different man from the dashing young gentleman she once carried a flame for. But life has changed her too. After a tragic accident left her scarred, physically and emotionally, she’s led a solitary life. She cherishes their new friendship, and yet she can’t help but hope Arthur sees the beauty within her…

Rating: B

In this third book in her Whitby Weddings series, author Jenni Fletcher pens a tender romance between a man who has allowed his past to imprison him and a young woman whose facial scarring has caused her to fashion a prison, of sorts, for herself.  The Viscount’s Veiled Lady is not without its weaknesses, but the central relationship is nicely developed and the hero and heroine are both likeable characters who have to learn to stop playing it quite so safe if they’re to have the life – and love – they deserve.

Frances Webster was injured in an accident some years earlier and was left with a scar down one side of her face.  Self-conscious and feeling that her mother is embarrassed by her looks, Frances rarely attends public events and when she does go out, she never leaves home without wearing a veil.  Knowing her ugly scar has ruined her marriage prospects – her former fiancé called off their engagement after the accident and she doesn’t expect to ever have another suitor – Frances has started to plan for an independent future.  She’s having some success making jewellery from the jet that is found abundantly on the nearby beach and selling it to local shops at a decent profit, even though she knows her family will be horrified at the thought of her engaging in ‘trade’.

When the story opens, her sister, Lydia – whose year of mourning for her husband isn’t quite up – is begging Frances to take a message to Arthur Amberton, Viscount Scorborough, who is a near neighbour and former suitor.  She wants Frances to persuade him to call, but Frances is uncomfortable, knowing Lydia is husband hunting.  Lydia is beautiful, spoiled and used to getting her own way, carelessly insisting that it’s perfectly alright for Frances to visit a young man without a chaperone as she has no reputation to damage (the implication being it’s because she’s no longer a marriageable young woman).  Hurt, but not particularly surprised by her sister’s callousness, Frances gives in when Lydia threatens to tell their parents of her jewellery making activities.

Unusually for a viscount, Arthur Amberton refuses to live at the family seat, Amberton Castle, as it holds too many painful memories, and instead maintains a small farm near the village of Sandsend.  When Frances arrives there, she’s surprised to find it deserted – until she ventures into the house and is confronted by a large, muscled, almost-naked young man emerging form one of the rooms.  Frances doesn’t recognise him – the Arthur she’d known had been slender and elegant – and bolts, running out of the house before he can stop her.  When he catches up with her, Frances has slipped and turned her ankle – and in spite of her protests, Arthur insists on carrying her back to the house to make sure no serious damage has been done.

Back when he’d been courting Lydia, Arthur and Frances had become friends of a sort; unlike Lydia’s (many) other suitors, he’d never dismissed her younger sister and had taken the time to talk to her and treat her as an adult.  As the days and weeks pass, Arthur and Frances renew their friendship, albeit in secret; Frances doesn’t want to hurt Lydia’s feelings by admitting that she’s spending time with Arthur even though he’s made it very clear that he has absolutely no interest whatsoever in seeing Lydia again.  In Arthur’s company, Frances  rediscovers the bright, vivacious girl she used to be, and while she believes she’s unattractive because of the scar on her face, Arthur doesn’t agree – he looks at Frances and sees only her – and realises that for the first time in years he feels like himself and whole again. Their romance is nicely done; although both of them have reasons for thinking they should try to fight their mutual attraction there’s definite chemistry between them and I particularly liked the way they support one another and encourage each other to step out of their comfort zones.

I mentioned that the book has weaknesses, and these are principally to do with certain events in Arthur’s past and his reaction to them.  He holds himself responsible for his father’s death, and also questions his mental health based on one (isolated) incident, citing that concern as his reason for eschewing marriage.  The black moment that comes near the end and threatens his and Frances’ happiness is somewhat flimsy as well – and it’s been and gone in almost the blink of an eye, which made me question the need for its presence at all.

Those quibbles apart, however, The Viscount’s Veiled Lady was an enjoyable read, and I’d certainly recommend it to anyone in the market for a gently moving, character-driven romance.

The Convenient Felstone Marriage by Jenni Fletcher

the convenient felstone marriageThis title may be purchased from Amazon

“I have a proposal for you…”

The last place respectable governess Ianthe Holt ever expected to be proposed to was in a train carriage…by a stranger…who had just accused her of trying to trap another man into marriage!

Shipping magnate Robert Felstone may be dashing, but he’s also insufferable, impertinent–and Ianthe’s only possible savior from her uncertain fate. She’s hesitant to play the perfect Felstone wife, but Robert soon shows Ianthe there’s more to him than meets the eye, and more to marriage than vows…

Rating: C+

The Convenient Felstone Marriage is Jenni Fletcher’s second historical romance for Harlequin, and is set in and around the port of Whitby in Yorkshire in the mid-Victorian era. It’s a nice change to read an historical romance set outside London, and the fact that the plot centres on a marriage of convenience drew me like catnip – but while I liked the premise, the story falls short in the execution. The pacing flags in the middle, the ending is over-dramatic and the heroine, whom I’d liked to start with, began to get on my nerves in the latter part of the book, her motivations and thought-processes becoming an overly convenient – and rather flimsy – way of dragging things out and attempting to inject some tension into the story.

Miss Ianthe Holt is furious with her younger brother, Percy, for attempting to engineer a match between her and Sir Charles Lester, a man some thirty years her senior. When the train carrying them to Yorkshire on a visit to their aunt makes a short stop, Percy takes the opportunity to jump down to walk along the platform, leaving his sister fuming – and embarrassed when she realises that the man who had been asleep in the corner of their compartment must have heard every word of their argument. Ianthe’s wrath spills over and she accuses the man of deliberately eavesdropping; he retorts sharply and accuses her of being a scheming harpy, willing to marry an older man for his money and then hoping for a fast widowhood.

Robert Felstone is travelling home to Whitby following a stinging rejection by the young woman to whom he has just proposed. Robert is the bastard son of a lord with a penchant for seducing his housemaids, but due to his own hard work and aptitude for business, has made something of himself and is now a wealthy and successful shipping magnate. He owns one large shipbuilding firm and is looking to buy out one of his oldest competitors – but all he has achieved wasn’t enough for the society beauty to whom he’d proposed and she laughed in his face, making it clear that he had aspirations above his station. He is still smarting from her rejection when he overhears the argument in his train carriage, and deciding discretion is the better part of valour, pretends to remain asleep rather than acknowledge he’s overheard everything. But the young woman’s challenge and attitude strike a raw nerve, and he can’t help blurting out exactly what he thinks of her. Fortunately, however, he soon realises how disgraceful it is of him to make such an assumption and apologises, at the same time realising that perhaps he has just been presented with an answer to one of his problems. In order to expand his business by purchasing the shipyard belonging to the old-fashioned Mr. Harper, Robert needs to be respectably married as the old man won’t consider selling to anyone other than a family man. The young woman in front of him is faced with the prospect of being forced into marriage, but if she were to agree to marry Robert instead… it’s a solution to both their present difficulties.

Ianthe is incredulous at being proposed to just moments after being berated and turns Robert down flat.  She will simply refuse Sir Charles when he asks for her hand – but when it becomes clear that that gentleman is not going to take no for an answer,  she is so scared that she decides to accept Robert, believing marriage to another man will prompt Sir Charles to leave her alone.

This is not, perhaps, the best basis for a marriage, but that’s often the case with this particular trope.  Ms. Fletcher does a good job of showing how frightened Ianthe is, and of making a point about how little control women had over their lives at this time; and Ianthe’s reaction – accepting Robert because she’s panicked and later, her reluctance to venture outside – makes sense.

Robert knows there is something Ianthe is not telling him when she accepts him, but he doesn’t push her to talk about it; theirs is going to be a business transaction and in any case, all he wants is to present his very respectable wife to Harper to seal the deal on the shipyard.  Or is it?  He can’t deny that he finds Ianthe attractive and likes her occasional show of spirit – although he also senses that there’s a different woman hiding behind the poorly dressed, somewhat prim façade she normally presents to the world.

And he’s right – she is hiding something besides the fact that Sir Charles frightened the life out of her.  Back when she worked as a governess, Ianthe believed herself in love with the son of the household and was persuaded to elope with him.  They were intercepted before anything irreversible happened between them, but the young man’s family basically blamed Ianthe for leading their son astray and called her all sorts of vicious names.  Ever since then, she has tried her best to fade into the background, deliberately adopting a severe hairstyle and dressing in dowdy, unflattering clothes.  She has also become preoccupied with being respectable – and that preoccupation turns into an obsession as soon as she marries Robert, because she knows he wants an irreproachably respectable wife in order to close the shipyard deal.  She didn’t tell him about the abortive elopement to start with because she was scared of being forced to marry Sir Charles, and after she and Robert are married, she doesn’t tell him for fear he will realise how far she is from the respectable wife he needs and set her aside.  Her continual harping upon respectability gets very irritating very quickly and turns into the worst kind of Big Misunderstanding because of her tunnel vision.

Robert is an engaging hero and I particularly liked the fact that he’s a member of the local lifeboat crew. The scenes late on in the book in which the crew is called out are very well done and provide some of the most interesting material in the story – but their impact is lessened by the inclusion of cliché after cliché in the final couple of chapters leading to a very rushed ending.

Ms. Fletcher’s style is engaging and very readable, and I liked parts of The Convenient Felstone Marriage enough to want to try more of her work; but I had completely lost patience with the heroine well before the end and can’t really recommend this particular example of it.