The Cad

The Challenge

The Chance

The Choice

The Conquest

The Devil’s Bargain

To Wed a Stranger by Edith Layton
(Avon, $5.99, PG) ISBN 0-06-050217-7
A new Edith Layton novel is always a source of anticipation, and To Wed a Stranger is no exception. This story of a famous beauty reduced to homeliness and the ex-sailor who comes to love her is at times charming and heart-wrenching. I couldn’t put it down.

Lady Annabelle Wylde is a Famous Beauty - and an unmarried one. Rejected by various suitors, Annabelle has reached the ripe old age of twenty-seven and has decided that an arranged marriage is better than no marriage at all. To that end, she agrees to marry Miles Croft, the new Viscount Pelham. He’s handsome enough, wealthy enough, and charming enough. That should be enough, Annabelle reasons.

Miles Croft didn’t bargain for any of the upheavals in his life. He made his fortune at sea, and now has the care of his younger brother and sister, plus his mother. The latter made a dreadful choice in a second husband, a man who ran through her fortune and left her penniless. The scandal will be insurmountable for his younger sister, unless Miles marries a woman who can stare down the ton with assurance. He’s found just the woman in beautiful Lady Annabelle Wylde, or so he thinks.

. Miles and Annabelle are married, but Annabelle falls ill on their wedding night, after a rather unsatisfactory introduction to the physical side of marriage. Her illness continues for several weeks, during which her hair is shorn and she loses a great deal of weight. Annabelle pulls through, in no small part to Miles’ careful nursing, but she’s a changed woman. The Famous Beauty is now a hollow-cheeked, bald, waifish-looking creature. What happens to a beauty when she can no longer depend on her looks?

Miles feels a great responsibility towards his new wife. He admits he doesn’t love her, but as she begins to regain her health, he begins to feel stirrings of lust. With Annabelle needing so much care, she and Miles spend a great deal of time together. As they gradually get to know one another, their carefully-constructed barriers fall. It’s a masterful piece of character development, because neither Annabelle nor Miles can depend on the facades they’ve constructed to carry them through this crisis. Annabelle no longer has her looks to shield her. Miles cannot remain aloof when caring for a woman who is as weak as a child. These two fall in love with the real person behind each other’s mask, because the mask has been stripped away.

There are enough secondary characters to keep the story line moving along, although this is a very character-driven novel. Miles’ younger sister is a tomboyish sort who needs Annabelle’s help preparing for her debut. Miles’ mother is overcome by her own bitterness at the loss of her own looks and the poor choices she’s made. But the book really belongs to Annabelle and Miles, and their deepening friendship and love.

The relationship between Miles and Annabelle is surprisingly sensuous, as Miles introduces his recovering bride to pleasure while keeping their relationship just this side of complete, not wanting her to become pregnant until she’s back to full health. Annabelle’s enthusiasm takes Miles by surprise. His guilt at possibly causing her illness gives way to delight at her natural sensuality and the comfortable, happy feeling growing between them.

Miles and Annabelle are both extremely likeable characters - readers will be cheering them on from the start. This story of two complete strangers falling deeply in love will strike readers as perfectly right. To Wed a Stranger is a wonderful tale of how love can blossom under the most unlikely circumstances. Romance doesn’t get any better than this.

--Cathy Sova

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