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REVIEW:  A Counterfeit Betrothal by Mary Balogh

REVIEW: A Counterfeit Betrothal by Mary Balogh

Dear Ms. Balogh,

I’ve long been a fan of your traditional regencies from the 1990s and when one I hadn’t read before was recently reissued in a 2-in-1 edition with your classic The Notorious Rake, I purchased it. A Counterfeit Betrothal contains two romances each of which affects the other.

A-Counterfeit-Betrothal-The-Notorious-RakeOlivia and Marcus married nineteen years ago, when she was seventeen and he twenty-one. It was a love match, and they were joyous when their daughter was born. A few years passed with no more children, but they remained very much in love, until little Sophia’s illness prevented Olivia from attending the wedding of Marcus’ good friend.

At Olivia’s insistence, Marcus went without her, but at a party before the wedding, he and his friends from his university days got drunk. Marcus’ friends mocked his stodginess as a married man and dared him to go to “a tavern of low repute” with them. In his drunkenness, Marcus slept with a girl he didn’t know.

Afterward, Marcus’ conscience made it hard for him to spend time with his wife and to make love to her. Olivia kept asking him what was wrong, and finally, Marcus confessed all. A horrified Olivia could not forgive her husband, and so, after five years of marriage, they separated and spent the next fifteen years apart.

Marcus and Olivia’s daughter Sophia is now eighteen and at the prodding of her friends, she decides to enter into a counterfeit betrothal with Francis, the youngest son of a duke and duchess who were close friends to her parents. Francis used to tease Sophia and play pranks on her when they were children, but he’s willing to go along with the scheme that may just reunite Sophia’s parents.

At first Marcus and Olivia both want to prevent their daughter from marrying at such a young age. Their own youthful marriage failed, and Francis has a rakish reputation. To this end, Olivia travels to Clifton Court and she and her estranged husband join forces.

The years have been kind to Olivia and Marcus, and each still finds the other attractive—perhaps even more attractive than in the past. They treat each other with courtesy and honor, and when Sophia tells them how happy she is to have them both at the same place at the same time, they resolve to spend more time together to ensure her continued happiness.

Rumors of Marcus’ affair with Mary Gregg, Lady Mornington, have reached Olivia’s ears, and she believes Marcus to be an insatiable philanderer. In reality, Mary is only a friend to Marcus, but he has in fact had a few encounters with prostitutes, in addition to keeping a mistress in the year immediately following his separation from Olivia.

None of these encounters satisfy Marcus. He has never forgotten his love for Olivia or his guilt for hurting her badly. And so, one day, when he finds her in the walled and hidden garden that used to be their special meeting place, one thing leads to another.

Marcus finds Olivia more responsive than she’s ever been in the past and assumes the worst—that another lover, most likely her friend Sir Clarence, has taught her a greater degree of passion than he himself ever had. In reality, Olivia has remained faithful to Marcus for all the years of their separation.

Jealousy still rears its ugly head, and Marcus, in his anger, treats Olivia coldly after their encounter. Olivia wishes she could just go back to her peaceful home, but for Sophia’s sake, she remains at Clifton Court and tries to pretend that she and Marcus aren’t lashing out at each other.

Meanwhile, Sophia and Francis put on their charade, which Francis insists requires kisses, and kisses that involve tongue at that. As Sophia’s parents grant their consent to the marriage and wedding preparations begin, Francis begins to worry that he’ll be trapped into marriage. Sophia reassures him that she would rather marry a snake, an eel, or a rat, and in the next breath, talks about how to get her parents to come visit them together after the marriage takes place.

Will Francis and Sophia indeed be trapped? And will Olivia and Marcus resolve their differences and make Sophia’s counterfeit betrothal scheme worthwhile?

I had mixed feelings about A Counterfeit Betrothal because I liked the Francis/Sophia subplot much better than Olivia/Marcus main romance. I didn’t feel sufficient motive was given for Marcus’ initial infidelity. If he and Olivia were so blissfully happy (they both insisted this was the case in their thoughts) then why did he allow himself to be tempted into such a betrayal?

There are some lovely moments early on in the Olivia/Marcus part of the plot, including their first meeting at the secret garden and the caring way Marcus initially treats Olivia. But the misunderstandings between them drag on, and on, and on, to a point where I didn’t feel at all sure of their happy ending.

The other thing that really ticked me off about Marcus and Olivia’s reunion romance was the double standard. Marcus slept with the tavern girl while living with Olivia, and for all his guilt, during their estrangement he had a mistress for a year (he actually thinks about how he’s used the lovemaking techniques he learned from her to make love to Olivia), and then a handful of encounters with prostitutes, so by my count he has had several partners other than Olivia in the course of their marriage.

Olivia, meanwhile, has only slept with Marcus and has otherwise been entirely chaste. Her friendship with Clarence isn’t even as much as a flirtation for reasons revealed in the hidden spoiler.

Spoiler: Show

Clarence is gay. (I didn’t love the treatment of Clarence’s sexual orientation because Olivia initially recoils to learn of it and Clarence stays completely chaste too—maybe I’m reading too much into this but it seemed to me that there was an implicit criticism of same-sex relationships here.)

And yet, despite the fact that Marcus’ infidelities are very real and Olivia’s only perceived, the amount of anger each holds toward the other is at least equal. I would even say that Marcus expresses his anger to a greater degree. And when they finally get back together, Olivia shoulders a lot of blame for having been so unforgiving in the past and not allowing Marcus to be “human.”

This last angered me too because Olivia would not have had a forgiveness problem had Marcus not felt the need to cheat and unburden his conscience to her.

What I enjoyed most in this book was the secondary romance with Sophia and Francis. This was clearly written for comic relief and managed to be pretty funny at times, especially when the two banter and bicker in ways that clearly reveal their attraction.

At times the Francis and Sophia relationship feels like a cat and mouse game but because we don’t delve much into their heads, it’s hard to know which of them is the mouse and which is the cat. The transition from fake betrothal to real love was romantic and sweet.

Though Francis and Sophia are many years younger than Olivia and Marcus, their love feels more mature and long lasting to me. Unfortunately that was not enough to overcome my feelings about Marcus. C-



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REVIEW:  An Invitation to Sin by Sarah Morgan

REVIEW: An Invitation to Sin by Sarah Morgan

Dear Ms. Morgan:

It’s well known around here that you are on my list of auto-buy authors, whether you’re writing Harlequin Medicals or Presents. When I saw the blurb for your latest release, I thought it might resemble A Night of Scandal, which I thought was terrific. An Invitation to Sin is actually quite different, even though one of the main characters here is also an actor, but I liked it just as much.

An Invitation to Sin by Sarah MorganThe novel is part of the Corretti Dynasty series of linked Presents novels, but it is early in the series and the reader doesn’t need to have read any of the other ones (or know anything about the storyline) to enjoy this installment. It opens with Taylor Carmichael attending a Corretti wedding in order to publicize the new film in which she stars. This is to be her comeback role, a chance to reenter the acting world she fled after a disastrous series of events sent her into seclusion. Taylor wants only to stay out of the limelight, but a chance meeting with the dashing and sexy Luca Corretti leads to a mishap with her too-tight dress, and there are photos splashed over the front pages of the tabloids the next day. Luca finds Taylor sexy and alluring but he’s uninterested in anything beyond the most superficially physical. However, when he realizes that his own career plans are  jeopardized by the paparazzi attention, he joins Taylor in manufacturing a fake love affair and engagement until the interest dies down.

Thus, two people who find each other very attractive but want nothing to do with relationships are thrown together. This is a pretty standard Presents setup, but their story and their characters are individual and appealing. Taylor’s history is more fraught and her personality has been battered by her bad choices and bad fortune, but she’s not a damaged heroine looking to be rescued by True Love. She absolutely wants to rescue herself, and her way to that is by rebuilding her acting career. Taylor truly loves acting, and from the first few pages the reader realizes that acting is substantively important to her, not a way to be a star or to be famous. She is devoted to it and finds it fulfilling.

Taylor’s history is definitely angst-filled, and part of it causes her problems in the present, but she works hard to manage them and to overcome her fears. In fact, the one time Luca tries to save her, he misinterprets what is going on and almost ruins everything. After the first couple of chapters, I found the balance between Taylor’s need to rebuild her self-confidence and her life more generally to be well maintained. I could see the insecurity and the fears clearly, but they weren’t all I saw.

Luca, on the other hand, is almost entirely devoid of angst and seems to find expressions of it puzzling. He’s used to women who care inordinately about their looks and their status, but his response is to avoid them as much as possible. Even as he realizes that a fake engagement will get him out of as big a jam as it will Taylor, he recoils at the thought:

Luca decided that maybe he could be the first engaged man on the planet who never actually saw his ‘fiancée.’ Pondering on that thought, he decided that the situation could actually be turned to his advantage. All he had to do in return for the responsibility he wanted was resist the urge to throw himself under the wheels of a passing car every time someone said the word engaged.

As his mind gradually emerged from the vice-like panic that came from thinking about weddings, he realised that Taylor Carmichael was probably already announcing to the world that she’d dumped him.

Knowing he had to act quickly, Luca spread his hands and smiled at the board. ‘I just came here today to share the happy news, but I’m afraid I can’t stay. Gutted though I am not to spend more time with you, I’m sure you understand. It’s Taylor’s first day of filming down at the docklands and I want to just go over there and be supportive, because—because—’ never having been supportive before, he floundered for a plausible reason for his actions ‘—because that’s what engaged people do.’ Truthfully he had absolutely no idea what engaged people did. All he knew was that he had nothing in common with them.

I loved Luca. He was so comfortable with himself, and while it was clear that his antipathy toward relationships and marriage stemmed from his childhood and the effects of his mother’s traumas, it didn’t turn him into a damaged or tortured person. I could completely buy the idea that if he met and was attracted to a woman who convinced him she wasn’t like that, his cast-iron rules would blow apart.

And Taylor does convince him, not by her words but by her actions. When they give in to their passions and sleep together, it’s the first time Luca has spent the night with a woman, but it’s Taylor who is running for the door:

Distracted by the urgency in her movements, Luca forgot his own panic and absorbed hers. ‘Is Etna erupting and we have just minutes to escape? Should I call the emergency services?’

‘Go back to sleep.’ Dragging open a drawer, she locked her hand around the first item of clothing she encountered. Dressed only in her panties with her trademark hair clouded and tangled from a night of wild sex, she was still the hottest woman he’d ever seen.

Realising that for the first time in his life he was witnessing a woman who was even more panicked about relationships than he was, Luca relaxed slightly.

She pulled on the T-shirt without bothering with a bra, a decision Luca supported wholeheartedly.

‘This is like a strip in reverse but it’s surprisingly erotic.’ His own panic fading, he hooked his hands behind his head and watched as she yanked on jeans in such haste she almost fell. ‘Where exactly are you going in this much of a hurry? This is Sicily. No one rushes in Sicily. You’re not on New York time now, dolcezza.’ But he knew her frantic rush to get dressed and escape had nothing to do with a desire to get to work and everything to do with her need to escape from a situation that terrified her. It would have terrified him too, except that she was panicking enough for both of them.

‘I’m going out—’ she snapped the words and zipped her jeans so violently he flinched ‘—out…somewhere. Anywhere.’

Luca sets out to show Taylor that she doesn’t have to be Taylor-the-star-who-messed-up, she can manage the paparazzi and have a semblance of a private life. While he goes to some far-fetched lengths to demonstrate this, the main way he convinces her is through his actions. He’s in the papers all the time, he has a reputation as a bad boy, but he doesn’t care.

Of course, much of the difference in their reputations is gendered; a sexually free woman is a slut, while a sexually free man is a stud. I would have liked to see this unfairness addressed more directly, especially since the crisis that befalls Taylor toward the end of the story turns on the difference. Still, Luca behaves the way I want my romance heroes to behave in these situations, and when he realizes how hard he’s fallen for Taylor, it’s a very satisfying moment.

Part of what makes this HEA gratifying is that neither character has to turn into someone different in order to achieve it. Taylor is no longer frantic and on edge, but she’s still recognizably the same person. And Luca is definitely the same person. He’s more willing to love and be loved but he’s still a bad boy, one who is slightly surprised at where he has voluntarily wound up. Grade: B+

~ Sunita


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