2003, European Historical Romance (1820s England)
Avon, $5.99, 384 pages, Amazon ASIN 0060502177 Part of a series
Although To Wed A Stranger is a sequel of sorts to Edith Layton's "C" series, it's not necessary to have read those books to thoroughly enjoy this one, nor does Layton lazily repeat the action in the previous stories to propel the action of this one along. Edith Layton is one of my favorite Regency/Historical Regency authors because she portrays poignant anguish so well. The story of Lady Annabelle Wylde and Lord Miles Croft is slight in plot, but overloaded in emotional resonance, and features writing as fine as Layton has ever done.
Lady Annabelle is the dark beauty from the "C" books, a woman who has set her cap at - and been rejected by - some of the most eligible bachelors in the ton. Annabelle is twenty-seven years old, long past the age most women of her time marry, and she has agreed to a marriage of convenience. Miles Croft, an ex-sailor who made his fortune at sea and returned to England as the new Viscount Pelham, is affable, charming, and handsome (but not devastatingly so) and a complete stranger to Annabelle on their wedding day.
Miles needs to be married, too, and quickly. His mother, a now faded beauty, made a disastrous choice in her second husband, a blackguard who ruined her name and whose legacy (he is deceased) may ruin the chances of Miles's sister to make an eligible match if someone of impeccable ton does not guide them through Society's turbulent waters. Then there's Miles's young and wayward brother, who could easily be led astray if Miles is not there to assist him. Miles has decided he must marry a woman who will be able to stand firm against Society's potential condemnation, and he has seen Annabelle do just that as the gossip grew regarding her unmarried state.
Annabelle has always taken her beauty for granted; she is accustomed to men drooling over her and women envying her. She is baffled, as well as bruised, by her respective romantic disappointments, and figures that marrying someone - anyone, almost - is better than never marrying at all. She hasn't looked beyond her wedding day, however, so her wedding night comes as something of a surprise. It begins well, but ends disastrously, compounded by Annabelle taking ill the following day. In fact, she becomes so ill that her hair must be shorn and she loses her looks, something that is potentially devastating to such a proud (if not vain) woman.
Miles, meanwhile, takes devoted care of her during her illness, but tortures himself with the realization that they might have made a terrible mistake in marrying without really knowing each other. He feels incredibly guilty about their wedding night and is determined that if she lives, he will try to make their future palatable to both of them. His emotional state is described in truly complex, real terms; a lot of romances would have the hero fall in love with the unconscious woman under his care, but Miles admits to himself that he does not love her, although he seriously lusts after her. As she slowly recovers, he still cannot bring himself to have sexual relations with her, since she is so fragile she reminds him of a child, something that repels him.
Annabelle makes slow progress back to health, and Miles is there to help her, encouraging her when she falters, trying to learn more about her so they are no longer strangers, and admiring her courage just as he did when she was the beautiful Lady Annabelle facing nasty gossip. Gradually, they resume a normal relationship and he realizes he is in love with her, a fact that tears him apart since he assumes she still wants only a marriage of convenience, especially as she regains her looks and place in society.
People being actually more or less than their looks might suggest is a theme that is repeated throughout the book. Miles's sister, for instance, is a large, florid girl who is nonetheless more sought after than more attractive debutantes because of her open character. Miles's mother is a bitter, plaintive woman now that she is no longer beautiful. Annabelle can only realize her own strength of character after she loses her looks, and as for her and Miles as a couple, they can only fall in love when he falls in love with the woman behind the beauty and she recognizes his own beautiful character.
The author sets up an impediment to their natural progress to admitting their love for each other. It's a slightly contrived situation that seemed forced. Thankfully this wasn't a Big Misunderstanding that could have been cleared up in a short conversation, but it's enough of a flaw that its DIK status was questionable. But Layton's honest depiction of human frailty and her way with a poignant situation is so touching and beautiful to read that To Wed a Stranger ultimately deserves DIK status. It wasn't hard to fall in love with Miles and admire Annabell's courage. Understanding and knowing each other as they do at the end of the book and predicting a happy future for them is just as easy.
-- Megan Frampton
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