I'm always looking for new Regency/Historical authors, as my old favorites don't publish as often as I would like and as much as I've come to appreciate contemporary romance, it just doesn't sell the conventions in the same way that historicals do. Secret babies? Much better in historicals. Marriages of convenience? Ditto. Anne Gracie's The Perfect Stranger takes the marriage of convenience convention and spins a lovely story out of it.
Stranger is the third in her "Perfect" series about a gaggle of sisters who lost their parents at a young age, survived years under their abusive grandfather's brutal hand and are now searching for the "love and laughter and music and sunshine" that their mother once promised they would have as adults. I previously read the first two books in the series. The first, The Perfect Rake, I found enjoyable but nothing special. A little too precious for my tastes. The second, The Perfect Waltz, I lost interest in halfway through and abandoned. There was nothing wrong with it, but it felt like so many other "innocent-but-spirited young girl in London captures attention of nobleman with some minor problem" stories.
I was a little trepidatious about giving Gracie another chance, but the back cover blurb drew me in. I'm happy to report that Stranger was, in Kate's termination, Very Good and bordering on Superb.
First, a little plot: Faith Merridew is alone and abandoned in France just after the Napoleonic Wars. She followed an itinerant musician to Paris, where she thought they were married, and lived with him for a month. Turns out he's lied about his identity, his nationality and his marital status -- he's got a wife and five kids back in Hungary (or Bulgaria, I can't remember which was the fake nationality and which was the real).
Penniless and ruined, Faith flees. She's on the verge of being caught and raped by some miscreants when she finds a former English soldier on the beach, who protects her. After learning her sad story, Nicholas commits to a marriage of convenience with Faith. He'll give her his good name, send her back to his mother in England and then continue with two of his soldier friends on what he calls his "mission." But Faith refuses to leave his side after they're married and sets about becoming a good soldier's wife, much to Nicholas' reluctant pleasure.
There's considerable angst in the protagonists' situation, which I always enjoy. And Gracie does a wonderful job with Nicholas and Faith's relationship. Of course he would marry her, and of course she would take her vows seriously and want to be a true wife to him. And of course they would fall in love in exactly the way they do -- and of course he would continue to push her away, given his predicament. The characters are both appealing, behave in ways admirable and pigheaded but always believable, and the dilemmas don't feel contrived. The secondary characters are also interesting. For once a secondary romance doesn't feel like a way to rot the time spent away from the main story.
In addition, Gracie's prose is very nice. I always feel conflicted when a writer does an excellent job with characterization, plot and even dialogue but has awkward, workmanlike prose. No such conflict here.
Part of my enjoyment of this novel probably comes from its subject matter. The journey through France and Spain is somewhat similar to that in one of my favorite romances of all time, The Suitor by Sandy Hingston. But whatever the reason, I finally feel that a Gracie novel is as gripping and enjoyable as I always hoped they would be but never quite were. Keep it up, Anne Gracie. By my count there's at least one more book left in the Perfect series. Fill it with this sort of action and intensity, and you'll hit the big times!