After the deaths of her parents and twin brother, Alicia Palmer and her younger sister are left as the wards of her uncle who has fallen into deep financial trouble. His creditors are calling in his debts, and if Alicia is not married within a month to a wealthy man who is willing to pay the family's bills, they will all be sent to debtor's prison. Alicia is not about to let that happen, but with her penniless, orphaned status and rather plain looks, her only offers thus far have been from lecherous and boorish old men. Alicia longs to marry for love, but realizes that would be all but impossible in her current circumstances, until she meets the man of her dreams at a ball.
Cole Amesbury has recently returned from adventuring on his brother's pirate ship. Now that he is back in England, he realizes that he has grown tired of the social gatherings where all the young ladies vie for his attentions in hopes of becoming his wife. He only attended the ball to please his matchmaking aunt, but when he spots Alicia, he is smitten. Cole tries to spend as much of the evening in her company as possible, and finds that she possesses a genuineness that is a refreshing change from the vapid chits who usually pursue him. When Alicia unintentionally runs straight into Cole's arms after one of her suitors tried to force himself on her, Cole can't help but feel the need to protect her, but when Alicia discovers that Cole is the man who shot her brother, Armand, in a duel which led to his death, the sparkling light in her eyes turns to hatred.
Cole feels terrible about what happened and hadn't even been aware of Armand's death. He tries to apologize, but Alicia can't quite seem to accept that his remorse is real. When Cole learns of her family's precarious position, he feels responsible and offers for her hand in marriage, but Alicia would rather marry anyone except for the man she believes took her beloved brother from her. Desperate to protect Alicia, Cole scares away her suitors and sends his cousin, Nicholas, a scarred war hero who lives behind a mask to care for her. Alicia is intimidated by Nicholas' shrouded countenance, but reluctantly agrees to marry him, for time is running out, and she has no other choices left. As she gets to know her husband, Alicia's fear of him starts to ebb as she begins to see the gentle man behind the mask, but when she finally finds forgiveness in her heart for Cole, he is the one who seems to fill all her thoughts. As Alicia finds herself struggling with the idea of being in love with two men, more accidents befall her and her family, leading to the conclusion that someone is apparently trying to kill them all.
I had the privilege of meeting Donna Hatch several months ago at a local event, and upon returning home, I looked up her website to find out more about her debut novel, The Stranger She Married. I was thoroughly intrigued by the synopsis and excerpt of the book I found there, and immediately put it on my TBR list, so when Ms. Hatch recently contacted me about reviewing the book, I was more than happy to oblige. The plot of The Stranger She Married is reminiscent of Kathleen E. Woodiwiss' A Rose in Winter, a classic romance novel that has been on my favorites list for many years. In spite of the similarities between the two books, Ms. Hatch still managed to keep me engrossed in her storytelling and often second-guessing what would happen next. The Stranger She Married is written in a more traditional regency style. Most of the story is of a rather low-key nature, and it is very character driven. It is also, without a doubt, a PG-rated romance, making it appropriate, in my opinion, for both younger and more sensitive romance readers. It has no curse words, minimal violence, and aside from a couple of passionate clinches, the love scenes are merely implied and take place off the canvas with no explicit details whatsoever. With its more subdued nature, I wouldn't necessarily characterize this as a passionate, heart-stopping romance, and I normally prefer my romances to have a bit more steam. Still, in spite of it not being quite like my usual fare, The Stranger She Married had a very appealing quality that made me like it a lot.
I think that there were two key elements which contributed to my enjoyment. First, the settings of the Regency balls, parties, social events and even the quiet solitude of a country estate were so beautifully and vividly rendered, it truly made me feel like I had been transported back in time to that era. The author certainly seems to have a good grasp on the history of the period, which lent the atmosphere a wonderful air of authenticity. The other thing which truly impressed me was the dialog. I don't think I have ever read dialog that is quite so fresh, varied and robust to the point that it is not only woven seamlessly into the plot, but it almost becomes a living, breathing thing in itself. I have certainly waded through my share of vapid conversations in romance novels, but the dialog in The Stranger She Married is never boring or inane, instead I felt that it really gave the story more genuineness and depth. The author skillfully uses it to build relationships, and occasionally there was some sharp, witty bantering which brought a smile to my face. It seems to me that writing truly good dialog would be rather challenging, but in my opinion, Ms. Hatch has done a wonderful job with it here. In fact, my only minor quibble would be that it is formatted in a rather unusual way which I have not seen before. This made it difficult at first to discern who was speaking, but once I got used to the pattern, I didn't really have any further trouble with it.
I also found the characters in The Stranger She Married to be an appealing bunch. There are essentially two heroes, cousins, Cole and Nicholas Amesbury who represent two sides of the same coin. Cole outwardly has a reputation as a charming and careless rake, but inside he has a heart of gold. He has tired of the social scene which he sees as nothing more than a marriage mart, and is quite taken by Alicia's looks and personality, which are so different from the other young women who typically pursue him. I loved his innate sense of honor and his desire to protect Alicia at all costs. The only thing about Cole that didn't quite ring true is that there was an allusion to dark things in his past which made him think of himself as something of a blackguard, but nothing ever came to light that made him seem like anything less than a gentleman to me. He also spent a good deal of time fighting his feelings for Alicia, which didn't really seem necessary given the direction the story took. Nicholas is the gentle, patient beta hero who mostly contents himself with simply spending time with Alicia. I loved how the author built their relationship through everyday things like talking, walking, playing games and sharing of knowledge. Nicholas, however, is a scarred man who is literally shrouded in mystery from head to toe. Then there is our heroine, Alicia, who finds herself in the confusing position of loving them both. Sometimes it seems like she is trying to have her cake and eat it too, but she is not unlike many Regency heroines who find themselves in the untenable situation of being a penniless orphan from a financially strapped noble family, wanting to marry for love but needing to marry for money. Alicia initially can't quite forgive Cole for his duel with her brother which ultimately left him dead, and by the time she is able to, circumstances have already forced her to marry Nicholas. I thought that Alicia could have stood out a little more, but then again, she was a wallflower. What I liked most about her is that she had the intelligence to realize that her family's deaths may not have been the accidents that they seemed, meaning that she too was in danger, as well as eventually putting the pieces of the puzzle together to discover the game that her husband was playing. There was also a nice group of secondary characters including Cole's matchmaking Aunt Livvy and his three brothers (only two of whom actually appeared in the story) who all have wildly varying personalities. All in all, I thought it was a very well-rounded cast.
There were many things that I liked about The Stranger She Married, but one thing I thought could have been better was the murder mystery. To be honest, if the synopsis hadn't alluded to some danger and intrigue, I probably wouldn't have recognized the mystery for what it was until it was staring me in the face. There were very few clues and no red herrings to speak of, so I wouldn't have been able to even hazard a guess as to a suspect or motive. The answer to the puzzle is basically just handed to the reader on a silver platter. I like a little light mystery in my romances from time to time, but half the fun is in being given enough information to speculate about what's happening. Also, the denouement of the suspense was pretty cliched with the villain making one of those tacky deathbed confessions which I thought lacked finesse. Overall I felt that the mystery/suspense element could have been much stronger, and the general plot ideas could have been more original. In the end though, I found myself waffling a bit over my star rating, and if those two things had been a little better, the book probably would have earned keeper status from me. Otherwise though, I really enjoyed The Stranger She Married. The pacing was good, never lagging, and the story kept me engrossed and wanting to continue. Readers who like more historical ambiance in their Regency romances should find some pleasurable entertainment in this one. The Stranger She Married is the first in a planned series titled Rogue Hearts. According to Donna Hatch's website, the next book, Guise of a Gentleman, is due to be released sometime this summer, and although there are very few details about it yet, I strongly suspect that Cole's dashing pirate brother, Jared, will be the hero. In my opinion, The Stranger She Married was a good debut novel from a very promising and talented new author, and I definitely look forward to reading more of her books in the future.
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