The Marriage Ring
by Cathy Maxwell, historical (2010)
Avon, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-06-177192-7
The Marriage Ring is, like many of Cathy Maxwell's books, something familiar cooked and served in a manner that still makes it stand out a little differently from the rest. In this one, we have the pairing of a misunderstood woman of ill repute and a stuffy proper gentleman. It's a familiar pairing, although it's not one that is common in the genre due to the typical aversion of a majority of romance readers to heroines who aren't born without a shining halo and fragrant maidenhead. However, Ms Maxwell is an author who can't resist tweaking familiar characters into something less ordinary.
Grace MacEachin is a singer who has taken the London stage by storm, although this only means that she is the subject of much competition among the gentlemen of the Ton - they all want to be the first to take her under their wing, if you know what I mean. Our heroine, who came to London to escape her unhappy past, realizes that town life is fast losing its allure. Sure, her shows sell out, but those people who pack the theaters just want to ogle at her chest. But she has an unfinished business that keeps her in London. When the story opens, this unfinished business shows up in her dressing room.
Richard Lynsted is far from the toast of the Ton. He is always found wanting when people compare him to his more elegant cousin - and they always compare him to the Duke, much to his consternation. He is always the clumsy oaf who prefers the comfort of his ledgers, the poor thing. Also, many people dislike his father and his uncle (both are twin brothers), and he doesn't understand why - his father and his uncle are two of the most moral people he knows. When he learns that Grace is blackmailing those two men, he wastes no time confronting the woman.
Grace spins a story that he finds far-fetched - his father and the man's brother swindled a very rich old woman once upon a time, framed Grace's father for the crime, and caused the man to be sent to a penal colony. Grace just wants the truth to be out, and if blackmailing those two men will accomplish the job, so be it. When Richard shows up in her dressing room, she offers to let him accompany her as she seeks out her father, who is now living in Scotland. There, Richard can hear the whole sordid tale from the man himself, and decides for himself what is true and what isn't.
This story is actually quite depressing, although that isn't necessarily a bad thing. It's depressing because... well, I don't want to spoil the story too much, but it's obvious from early on that both Grace and Richard adore their fathers far more than they deserve, and these two are in for a very rude awakening when the truth comes out. While they do fall in love, I close the book also feeling a bit sad that, while these two find each other, they also lose their faith in the men they have looked up to all their lives. Still, by letting go of the past, they both begin to heal, so this is not a truly unhappy turn of events.
Grace is going to be a polarizing heroine. She's tough, determined to make the best out of her life, and, at the same time, she has her own moral code that sees her wanting to be fair when it comes to Richard. No, Grace is not a virgin, and she's also not a long-lost daughter of a nobleman. In this story, she and Richard have a stab at a happily ever after because he's walking away from his life to start anew with the woman he loves, and if this means living life as a simple lawyer in Scotland, so be it. As for Richard, oh, I think he is truly one of the sweetest, most romantic, and adorable heroes I've come across. It's embarrassing how many times I have read his marriage proposal to Grace - his impassioned speech actually made me sigh aloud wistfully. He's a bit dim when it comes to seeing the obvious about his father and the man's brother, but I guess he really likes those men in his life that much. Richard is also adorable - truly adorable - in how much he is having fun in his Scottish adventures with Grace. He throws a punch and, more often than not, gets knocked down even harder, but deep inside, he's actually enjoying the whole thing. Both characters feel really right together, from their daddy issues to their growing feelings for each other, and it's a bittersweet experience to follow them as they fall in love.
The plot of The Marriage Ring has its share of unbelievable moments, but I really enjoy the romance, so much so that I am willing to overlook the sillier moments of the story. With a celibate hero who is far from a social butterfly, a heroine who is as "ruined" as they come, and a bittersweet and rather ambiguous happy ending, this one is like a song where the lyrics may be familiar, but the melody is so haunting that it chills my soul and makes sure that I won't be forgetting this tale anytime soon.
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