Michael Sanson has fancied himself in love with Ivy Lewin since they were quite young, but as the fifth son of an earl, he had little to offer her. Five years ago, they made promises to wait for each other while Michael went into the army to prove himself worthy, but now that he is back, she seems to be giving him the cold shoulder. Her father, Sir William, makes a deal with Michael, offering her hand in marriage if Michael will covertly retrieve a scientific formula which could be worth a fortune, and which he claims was stolen from him. For love of Ivy, Michael reluctantly agrees to pose as a tea merchant and visit a small English village to do as he's been asked, but once there, he begins to have doubts not only about Sir William's motives but also about the truth of his feelings for Ivy.
Jocelyn Kenyon was jilted by her life-long friend, Thomas, who she had always expected to marry. Instead, he is now about to announce his upcoming nuptials to the beautiful Lady Elfreda, and Jocelyn would like nothing more than to show up at the engagement ball on the arm of a handsome man to make him jealous. Unfortunately, there are no eligible bachelors in town to fit the bill until one Michael Donaldson, tea merchant, breezes into the village. Once he realizes that Jocelyn is none other than the niece of the man who was accused of stealing the formula, Michael agrees to help. It doesn't take long for Jocelyn to fall for Michael and he for her, but whatever would she do if she were to find out the real reason for him being there.
In a Moonlit Garden is a whimsical tale that can be very enjoyable as long as the reader doesn't take it too seriously. It has a lighthearted, fairy tale quality where things just fall into place with a minimum of fuss, and HEAs all around. I settled into this novella with my usual earnestness, feeling very uncertain about the author's ability to make me believe in a love connection when both the hero and heroine begin the story pining after other loves and had a very short space in which to reconcile those feelings. I quickly realized that I just needed to lighten up and go with the flow, after which I very much enjoyed it even if everything did happen a little too easily. Normally, this would not work well for me, but Cathy Maxwell managed to infuse the romance with a tender, emotional quality that really pulled me in and had me believing in the impossible.
In a Moonlit Garden has a sweet, funny cast of characters that I couldn't help but like in spite of their flaws. As I already mentioned, I had my doubts about Michael and Jocelyn, the hero and heroine, still frequently declaring their love for others, but it was pretty obvious to me from the outset that they were well-suited for one another. The entire tale is something of a comedy of errors with nearly everyone thinking they love someone else, but finally realizing that the person they thought they loved was merely a comfortable crush, while the person right in front of them is the one who's best for them. Michael may have started out with an agenda, but he was smart enough to figure out that his "benefactor" may have had ulterior motives in asking for his help and that Jocelyn's uncle might be innocent. Jocelyn was a sweet young lady, an orphan who had trouble trusting because of her loss and being jilted by her longtime friend who she always thought she'd marry. She was very forgiving to overlook Michael's initial duplicity and also intelligent enough to understand that his feelings for her had never been a lie. The secondary characters were fun too. Jocelyn's Uncle Geoff is an eccentric scientist with a tendency to be forgetful and occasionally blow things up, but also wise in the ways of love. Jocelyn's ex, Thomas, was a bit spoiled, but not a bad guy, and his soon-to-be fiancée, Elfreda, thought the sun rose and shone with him. There were several other minor characters too, and all of them came together to create a charming little village in the English countryside.
Overall, In a Moonlit Garden was a playful, energetic, and delightfully amusing read for me. It may not have reached the heights of perfection, but I certainly found it to be entertaining in a way that many lighter stories aren't. It was my first read by Cathy Maxwell, and has definitely left me open to trying her other works when I'm in the mood for a gentle read to lift my spirits. In a Moonlit Garden can be found in the Tea for Two anthology.
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