Tuesday, November 18, 2008

A Counterfeit Betrothal by Mary Balogh *****

What a delightful and different story this was! It's listed as the 2nd in the series, between The Trysting Place and A Notorious Rake, which is an AAR Top 100 of 2007 - so I collected the series from eBay to read in order. I don't recall any connected characters from The Trysting Place showing up in this book (perhaps at the wedding?) - but I am so glad I read this!

Although the backcover blurb leads you to believe this is the story of Lady Sophia Bryant arranging with an old family friend, Lord Francis Sutton, to have a pretend engagement, it's equally the story of the reason behind their deception. Sophia's parents have been estranged for 14 years, and in an attempt - a la Parent Trap - to get them back together, Sophia tries to come up with a plan that will force them to get together. She decides that a completely impossible marriage offer will do the trick - Marc and Olivia will have to get together to convince Sophia not to go through with the relationship.

Who is more impossible than Francis? Practically from birth, he has been teasing her and goading her and getting her into scrapes and trouble as she followed him and his older brothers everywhere. There is no way in the world she would ever consider actually becoming engaged to him, and she knows he is the one person her parents will never allow - so she will throw fits and threaten to elope with him or worse - until she knows they have realized their love for one another and gotten back together. And then, of course, Sophia and Francis will cry off and go their merry ways. She, for one, never intends to actually marry anyone, especially not Francis.

Francis, a few years older and really not much wiser, decides it's an amusing way to spend the next few days - or weeks - or, good God, not years? So he goes along with the plan, a sort of anchor in her madness.

Their dialog scenes are hysterically funny - he continues, as he did when they were children, to goad her into arguments and tease her and... well, they have to kiss every now and then to keep up the charade, do they not?

But the real love story is Marc and Olivia's story. Fourteen years ago, Olivia insisted Marc go to London to a friend's wedding while she stayed home with measle-ridden Sophia, against Marc's wishes to stay home with his family. While out on the town with his friends, they dare him and goad him and he gets drunk and visits a brothel with the them. Unable to keep it secret, the guilt-ridden Marc confesses all to Olivia, who, in her innocence and naivite, cannot find it in her heart to forgive him. Ever. He leaves, but continues to write begging her forgiveness for six months. She finally breaks it off, and they have only exchanged polite letters about Sophia's welfare ever since.

Of course, Sophia's news does bring them together, and her father hosts a house party with Francis' parents and their friends. Trying to convince her not to go through with the betrothal is more difficult than they originally thought, considering they were even younger when they themselves wed, so they agree. Sophia, keeping up the deception, decides it will be best if they go ahead and plan the wedding for right away so that Olivia must stay at her husband's house. Francis laughingly goes along, threatening all along to commit her to Bedlam for the madness of her plan. She even slips from time to time, talking about after they are wed - where will they honeymoon? And perhaps her parents would stay together until the first child is born... Oh, wait, they are not actually going to go through with the wedding! Right! She would sooner wed a toad!

The counterpoint to the farce is the underlying agony of Marc and Olivia - both still in love with the other but unable to close the breach and admit their feelings and forgive each other and themselves for the past 14 years.

Marc and Olivia are really the hero and heroine of the book, in my opinion - it is really their story, of learning to love and trust and forgive against the backdrop of the two young lovers, er, friends, well, enemies, but... It's a delightful romp and a touching love story, braided together.

5 stars.

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