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Mary Fleming and John Bexley are the “white sheep’ of their large families, written off as hapless, boring—and thus suitable for each other. But they’re no sooner married than John is sent off on a two-year diplomatic mission.
Upon his return, John and Mary find that everything they thought they knew about each other is wrong. They’ve changed radically during the long separation. They have to start all over. It’s surprising, irritating—and somehow very exciting . . .
John Bexley reined in his hired horse on a slight rise and gazed down at the red brick manor, somnolent under the August sun. Eager as he was to get to London, he’d felt he must detour west into Somerset to fetch Mary. Her family’s decision to put her under the care of a great-aunt while he was away just showed he was right to fear that such a shy, quiet girl couldn’t arrange a journey on her own. And now that he was here, the sight of this place soothed him; it looked the very essence of English country comfort and peace.
John’s knock was answered by an aged butler. He gave his name, stepped in, and inhaled the familiar scents of beeswax polish and potpourri. The place reminded him of his own home farther north. Golden light pooled on the wooden floor and gleamed on the stair rail. In the rooms on either side of the entry, the furnishings were classic and inviting. Mary had certainly had a beautiful and serene spot in which to wait for him. “Mary’s husband,” he added when it seemed as if the old man didn’t know what to do with him. “I believe I am expected.”
A filthy, hysterical chicken shot through the rear door of the dining parlor on his left, skidded in a turn around the table, and raced past him, neck extended, screeching, flapping its mottled wings. A little boy slathered with mud came racing after it, careened off the doorjamb, and staggered across the entryway, leaving streaks and globs of dirt in his wake. The old butler stiffened in horror.
The bird hopped across a flowered sofa in the front parlor, stitching it with muddy tracks, circled the delicate carpet, and looped back toward John. The boy in pursuit slipped, fell, jumped up, and turned to follow. He flapped muddy hands at the fowl in an inept attempt to trap it.
What seemed like a herd of adults jostled into the dining parlor, then surged forward. “Arthur!” snapped a young woman, her voice crackling with authority.
“It isn’t my fault,” the boy shouted over the wild squawking. “I pulled her from the mire. Fox was after her. I never shot her or nothing.”
As the crazed chicken surged past him, John bent, reached, and snatched hold of its legs. When he straightened, he held the muddy bird upside down, at arm’s length, well away from his clothing. It flapped and protested; flakes of dirt dropped to the floor.
“Good!” said the managing female, striding from the dining room into the hall. “Take it from him, Alice, and put it outside at once.”
The middle-aged maid jumped to obey like a subaltern responding to a commanding general. The butler relaxed. The boy stood to attention. “It wasn’t me, I swear,” he repeated. “I rescued ’er. I killed three rats as well. Would have been four, but I…”
“Very well, Arthur,” the woman replied. “Go now and get cleaned up.”
The boy finally noticed the mud sliding from his clothes to the polished floor. His face shifted from defensive to horrified, and he slunk out. In the same moment, John realized that the woman with a voice like a sergeant major was his meek little sparrow of a wife.
Publisher and Release Date: March 3, 2015, Sourcebooks Casablanca
Time and Setting: London, England, 1816
Genre: Regency Romance
Heat Level: 2
Reviewer Rating: 4 stars
Review by Lady Wesley
I always enjoy a marriage-of-convenience story, and Married to a Perfect Stranger delivers exactly that. John and Mary are viewed by their respective families as pattern-cards of propriety. As such, they seem to make a perfect match, and so, after a short courtship in Bath, they marry. Soon afterward, John, who works for the Foreign Office, is sent away on a diplomatic mission to China, and the book opens nearly two years later as he returns. Just before reaching England, John’s ship hits a rock, and as the ship is sinking, John goes below to rescue his boss, Lord Amherst, while his feckless colleague, the Honorable Edmund Fordyce refuses to help. Fordyce’s middle name might as well be Villain.
But the events of the past two years have changed both John and Mary. John, considered the least talented of four sons, found a new sense of purpose and confidence on his mission. He looks forward to setting up household in London with his shy, biddable wife, a woman who John could teach to become a fine diplomat’s wife. Mary, however, has spent their time apart caring for her somewhat addled great aunt Lavinia, a thankless task foisted upon her by her bullying mother. In learning to run Lavinia’s household and deal with her ancient group of servants, Mary has gained new self-assurance. She also has come to realize that her frequent sketching is more than just a hobby. She is what we now might call a “visual thinker” (and appears to suffer from a reading disorder), and to truly understand a situation she needs to draw the people involved. Drawing is key to her understanding and to her ability to communicate with others.
John and Mary’s reunion gets off to a bumpy start. “What has happened to you?” he blurts out to his wife, now a managing female with an air of command. When Mary stands up to him, John is quickly back on his horse and headed for London. Three weeks later, Mary arrives at their house in London, hoping for the best, but John is distant, rather haughty, and secretive about his work. He is a complete arse and impossible to like. Mary, on the other hand, is quite sympathetic and eager to please.
These two have a lot to learn – about life, marriage, and one another, and the book tells a lovely story of two people sincerely committed to making their marriage work. After several confrontations, they reach an agreement to start afresh, and it helps that there is physical attraction between them. John and Mary become a team and must stand up to the scorn and resistance of their own families and John’s office colleagues in order to make a life for themselves.
If the book had concentrated on that, I would have liked it better, but the author adds an espionage plot that I did not find quite convincing. But the story of John and Mary’s relationship – which gradually grows into mutual support, attraction, respect, and love – is very satisfying.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jane Ashford discovered Georgette Heyer in junior high school and was captivated by the glittering world and witty language of Regency England. Her romances have been published all over the world. Jane has been nominated for a Career Achievement Award by RT Book Reviews. She lives in Los Angeles, California.