Secrets of a Scandalous Bride
by Sophia Nash
(Avon, $7.99, PG-13)  ISBN  978-0-06-149330-0
*****
I'm not by any means one to over-praise, so I hope it's taken to heart when I say Secrets of a Scandalous Bride is the most gripping historical romance novel I've read in at least a decade.  Although I've no established history with Sophia Nash or her Widows Club series, I will certainly be going back and trying out the other three novels.

Elizabeth Ashburton is one widow of the so-called Widows Club with a great big secret: she's never been married. Not that she's pretending otherwise for any improper reasons, but she and her bosom friend, Sarah Winters, just suited so well with the dowager Duchess and her other four female friends. There is also the fact that, for the last two years since fleeing Portugal, Elizabeth has been doing her level best to avoid Lelan Pymm.  Hiding amongst these women with their fairly secure backgrounds has been safer and so much more enjoyable.

Elizabeth had followed the drum (accompanied her military father during the war in the peninsula) since she was sixteen. When General Pymm offered for her, her father refused on Elizabeth's wishes. Shortly after, Pymm himself delivered the sorry news that Elizabeth's father and her friend Sarah's husband had been killed in battle – and that the dying wish of Elizabeth's father was for her to marry Pymm.  From that moment, the two women had been on the run; nothing could convince Elizabeth that her father had swayed his mind, and she was equally as certain that Pymm had killed him just to clear a path to Elizabeth.

Now, Pymm is England's latest national hero, set to have a duchy settled on him by the Prince himself.  He has located Elizabeth, despite her many attempts to stay out of his line of sight.  He has renewed his so-called courtship, which primarily involves leaving Elizabeth creepy notes, making sly asides, and showing up randomly to see her.

Though in her heart she is tired of running and knows she is basically out of places to run, Elizabeth is certainly not a quitter.  So, enter Mr. Rowland Manning, bastard, blackguard, and horsemaster, into the equation.  After taking part in one of Elizabeth's charades to avoid Pymm, Manning demands recompense.  Elizabeth finds herself in the position of his cook for several days, and bears secret witness to a side of the man she did not expect (especially given his attempt on his own half-brother's life the previous year) and one she does expect no one else has ever seen.  Manning is definitely as he appears: spare, hard, and cold.  With some digging, though, Elizabeth discovers he is what is past has made him – and what he has made of himself simply because of said past.

Because of his connections through his brother to the dowager duchess, Rowland does reluctantly find himself embroiled in trying to keep Elizabeth happy.  The fact that the rest of her friends have begun to doubt her reasons for refusing Pymm does not stop them from coming to her aid. Soon, however, it is Rowland, the consummate actor, who is plotting out her future.  And just as quickly as he can develop a plan, Elizabeth foils it.  When her future with Pymm becomes most certain, Rowland Manning finally tops himself in outrageousness.  Only Elizabeth knows, however, just how many things lay in the balance waiting for her dreaded wedding day.

It's not too often ever sentence in a historical novel demands the attention of the reader.  In fact, I believe I've never read one with this level of suspense.  Not only is the very give-and-take relationship between Elizabeth and Rowland uncertain until the very end of the book (and forbidden to boot), Leland Pymm is creepy in the way of the husband in Sleeping With the Enemy.  Nash is very comfortable with her era but will not bore readers with unwanted and unnecessary details.  Unfortunately, Secrets of a Scandalous Bride does have a taste of finality to it; it finally sees the Ata, the dowager, settled, as well as finding a place in the world for Sarah Winters.  I believe, like myself, that readers will want to read the previous books (and one novella) in the series, and I also believe that readers of Secrets of a Scandalous Bride will wait with baited breath for Sophia Nash's next novel.

--Sarrah Knight


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