A Christmas Bride/Christmas Beau by Mary Balogh
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
It is not often that a novella--at least, not in the romance genre--delves into the darkness and pain of the human soul. Then again, both of these novellas are nearly full-length novels, and both are written by Mary Balogh, whose recent works have dealt increasingly with more complicated characters and situations than are the standard fare. It makes for a refreshing, absorbing change, albeit not quite the escapist literature I had thought I was checking out from the library.
In "A Christmas Bride," wealthy merchant Edgar Downes has promised his father he will, as the title suggests, find a bride by Christmas. Not just any bride though: a Lady, preferably with a title. This is no easy task, given the social stratification and attitudes of 19th century Britain. Still, his sister did marry a peer, so she can introduce him to eligible young ladies. The problem is, his attention is captured by a widow his own age, who on impulse takes him home with her for a one night stand, which both regret the next day. Lady Stapleton has spent the past dozen years or so frozen in an emotional prison, trapped by self-loathing stemming from a terrible mistake she made during her marriage. She lives her life in the shallows, convinced she does not deserve happiness. Fate and the magic of the Christmas season conspire to upend her orderly existence, however, and soon she finds herself unhappily betrothed and in the midst of a jolly Downes family gathering. Edgar's challenge is to break through Helena's defenses and discover what horrible secret has been haunting her all these years, lest her despair consume them both.
"Christmas Beau" opens with the return of Judith Easton to London society. Her year of mourning for her husband is officially over, and she's not eager to spend another Christmas with his family and their drunken card playing. She is intending instead to enjoy a quiet holiday with her two young children and her sister-in-law, Amy. Within days of her arrival, however, she finds herself the focus of the Marquess of Denbigh's attention. Eight years ago, Judith broke her engagement to the Marquess by eloping with another man, leaving her unhappy parents to break the news of her flight. Since she never knew he was in love with her, she had no idea how badly she crushed his heart. Now he is determined to exact revenge. She doesn't trust him, and never has, so he must be clever and deliberate if he is to convince her his intentions are actually honorable. Only some seismic shifts in perception will avert disaster and heartbreak for both.
These novellas were originally published in the 1990s--much to my astonishment, as very few romance novels/novellas written before the late '90s are any good, in my opinion. They tend to be cheesy and, well, I have a whole theory/rant about that, but anyway, these stories are actually good! All four main characters would have a LOT of work to do to maintain happy marriages, yet I feel like they might have the depth to pull it off.
For readers' advisors: character doorway is primary, story and setting secondary. There are a couple of sex scenes, but I don't remember any swearing.
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