A Scandalous Marriage, Debbie Raleigh’s final entry in her trilogy featuring the good-natured Vicar Humbly is perhaps the best of the lot. Here the vicar must try to bring about a romance between two stubborn people who were forced to marry under a cloud of scandal.
Victoria Mallory plans to elope with Mr. Thomas Stice, and has agreed to meet him at a posting inn outside of London. She uses her cousin’s name, Lady Westfield, to the innkeeper in hopes of throwing Thomas’s overbearing mother off their trail. Victoria is half-awakened in her bed at the inn when a masculine form crawls in with her and begins to seduce her. She’s thrilled with Thomas’s daring, until her calls her “Dearest Maria”. Victoria bolts awake to find it’s not Thomas in her bed, but the notorious Lord Claredon, who believed he was seducing Victoria’s oh-so-available cousin.
Caught in such a compromising situation, Victoria and Claredon wed in haste and then begin repenting at leisure. Six months later, Vicar Humbly decides to see for himself how Victoria is faring. He was hastily summoned to marry them, and felt uneasy about the whole affair. Now Vicar Humbly must make sure the last of his three special young ladies are happily settled before he can enjoy his own pending retirement.
Victoria and Claredon coexist with glaring determination. Claredon has not returned to the rakehell life he enjoyed in London. His own father flaunted his indiscretions to his mother, and Claredon vowed when he married, he’d never humiliate his wife with unfaithfulness. Yet Victoria refuses to be a true wife to him, and having her near is becoming an increasing torment to Claredon, who can’t forget her enthusiastic response to him in that bed at the inn.
Victoria is determined to hold Claredon at arm’s length, though the man privately fascinates her. Victoria, who gave up her own season to care for her younger sister after their parents were killed, wants nothing more than to be loved and desired for herself, something she anticipated with Thomas Stice. Now she’s wed to a man who taunts her with his arrogance. When Vicar Humbly arrives for an unexpected visit, Victoria and Claredon must reluctantly join forces to carry out the charade of a happy marriage.
What’s most delightful about this story is Victoria and Claredon, who are forced into each other’s company and start getting to know one another at last. When they do, they are both surprised and deeply impressed by what they discover. Claredon, for all his reputation, has a deep, personal code of honor that he refuses to break. Victoria, underneath her waspish defenses, is intelligent, capable, and loving. The more these two discover, the more they are drawn together. Their romance develops naturally and is completely believable, and because this couple is already married, it allows the author some liberty in regards to their physical relationship.
Vicar Humbly is little more than an external device to get the hero and heroine together, but he stays mostly in the background. A subplot involving a mysterious intruder looking for jewels is used to good effect, and the reappearance of the hilariously ineffectual Thomas Stice forces Victoria to examine her previous attachment to him in a new light.
A Scandalous Marriage is a cleverly-plotted, engaging conclusion to Vicar Humbly’s matchmaking efforts. This one is a definite treat for Regency lovers.