His Unexpected Wife is set in 1894 in Denver, Colorado. Young women are just starting to assert their intentions to be more than a wife and mother, and generally, men don’t like it. With a title that is misleading, underlying character motivations that are fairly predictable, conflicts similar to other westerns, and a satisfying romance, it is at first hard to see what sets this book apart. But Maureen McKade has taken this formula and made it work well.
Annie Trevelyan is the daughter Trev and stepdaughter of Kate from A Mail Order Bride. For those who have read the story, this is a nice visit with old friends. For those who haven’t, this book stands alone with no difficulty.
Annie is 20 and ready to embark on a trip to San Francisco, where her parents want her to enroll in a finishing school, but where Annie plans to launch her stage career as an actress. Annie has made friends with a troupe of actors and has even appeared on stage, unbeknownst to her family. She feels acting is in her blood and is her destiny. She is also petrified of marrying and having children, as her mother died in childbirth and suffered from melancholia, which resulted in her hating her children. Although Annie was only four when her mother died, she has nightmares of this remembered hatred.
Colin McBride, nine years Annie’s senior, is a family friend. He remembers Annie as a delightful imp of a child who easily wrapped her father around her finger and got her way. Colin has grown into a rich man, working on the railroad as a miner, tunneling into the mountains. He is recuperating from a tunnel explosion where a friend of his died and Colin lay injured with a broken leg, awaiting rescue. Colin has retired and has dreams of owning and operating a safe, peaceful horse ranch where he can marry a stable woman and raise a family.
The conflict arises when he and Annie are reunited. Drawn to each other, they recognize that they want opposite things, and feel things can never work out. During his visit to Annie’s family, Colin agrees to escort Annie and her chaperone, Margaret Mopplewhite, the widow of an abusive husband, to San Francisco.
On the train, they encounter Annie’s troupe of colorful actors and the stage is set. The actors add spice to this story…there is Percival, an older, fatherly type who finds himself attracted to Margaret. Essie is a stereotypical “bawdy” actress who blatantly offers Colin her favors, much to Annie’s chagrin. A young orphan and a simpleton, whom the troupe has adopted as their own, accompany them. Margaret and Colin are skeptical of this troupe and have to struggle with their own prejudices while Annie eagerly welcomes the troupe.
Adventures abound, with predictable results. An old beau threatens Annie, and Colin steps in to protect her. Someone is making attempts on either Annie or Colin’s life and this draws them together into dangerous situations. Annie is defying her father to pursue her acting ambitions, and Colin feels conflicted between his understanding of her dreams and his sense of loyalty to her father. Annie wants Colin to be happy, but hates to see him seeking a wife, recognizing she is jealous. It is only their stubbornness and their relentless pursuit of their own dreams that keep them from acknowledging their feelings. Luckily for them, all of their friends can read the writing on the wall and help them to see how they really feel.
Maureen McKade takes what could be a predictable, run-of-the-mill story and brings it to life. The humor and subtlety of the interactions is very real. McKade also allows the characters to forgive themselves and mature. Colin, Annie and the secondary characters are all able to make decisions based on what they have seen and learned, giving up their own concerns when confronted with information to change their minds. Without giving the ending, one example is Margaret’s ability to adjust in how she sees the theatre troupe as people with hearts and feelings rather than hanging onto her prejudices. It is this character growth that makes this novel more than an average western romance.
His Unexpected Wife is an unexpectedly enjoyable read!