Dell / August 27, 2013 / $7.99 print & digital
Desperate to escape his mother’s matchmaking, Vincent Hunt, Viscount Darleigh, flees to a remote country village. But even there, another marital trap is sprung. So when Miss Sophia Fry’s intervention on his behalf finds her unceremoniously booted from her guardian’s home, Vincent is compelled to act. He may have been blinded in battle, but he can see a solution to both their problems: marriage.
At first, quiet, unassuming Sophia rejects Vincent’s proposal. But when such a gloriously handsome man persuades her that he needs a wife of his own choosing as much as she needs protection from destitution, she agrees. Her alternative is too dreadful to contemplate. But how can an all-consuming fire burn from such a cold arrangement? As friendship and camaraderie lead to sweet seduction and erotic pleasure, dare they believe a bargain born of desperation might lead them both to a love destined to be?
The Arrangement, the second book in The Survivors Club series, finally tells the story of the devastatingly handsome Vincent Hunt, who was blinded in the first battle of Waterloo. His family’s concern for him has become oppressive and when we meet him again he is on the run, fighting to live the life he wants and to marry—if and when and whom he chooses.
The Arrangement ticks so many favorite boxes: a Cinderella heroine, a marriage of convenience, a misalliance, and on a broader level, the enjoyment of watching a man whose first loyalty is to his circle of trusted comrades as he transitions to a different kind of intimacy—the circle of love and trust that envelops a happily married couple. Mary Balogh never relies on stereotypes for her plots or characters. Not for her is a relationship where one side is powerless and the other holds all the cards, even though it might seem that a blind hero has little to offer in marriage beside his noble name and fortune. Given how Viscount Darleigh is treated so carefully by most of the ton—really by everyone except the men and one woman of The Survivors Club—one might assume that to be the case. Or that Sophia Fry’s role is to be Vincent’s eyes and to introduce and implement changes at his estate that will allow him to become fully in control of his responsibilities. But there are far more nuances to Vincent and Sophia’s “arrangement” that emerge.
The word arrangement is key to understanding the plot. Vincent and Sophia, when we meet them, are both trapped by the circumstances of their respective societal prisons. Sophia is penniless and her future looks like more of the same, being the invisible poor relation in the corner of the room, never having her feelings considered and certainly no marriage in sight. Her dreams are poignantly simple: to live in a cottage surrounded by flowers, with enough money to spin imaginative stories and to be independent. For the aristocratic Vincent, destitution is not a fear, but he dreads dependency, even if the bonds that constrain him are constructed of love and worry on the part of his mother and sisters. So is a happy-ever-after for this pair one that has them living happily as independent adults? Well, not in any romance I’m familiar with! But how delicious to read about two intelligent people who care for each other but are not necessarily madly in love with one another. In this arrangement, love will take time to emerge, and each character will offer the other opportunities and possibilities that neither could have imagined separately.
The Arrangement is almost a Mary Balogh choose-your-own-ending book, because both paths are presented as desirable and enticing. It was difficult to pick a scene that encapsulated the shift in both their consciousness, but I kept returning to the sweet, tentative aftermath of their wedding night. Balogh readers will note some familiar strains and notes. A “drained and utterly relaxed” Vincent thinks,
“His selfishness was the first thing that struck him when he returned to himself a couple of minutes or so later. He had intended being gentle and somewhat restrained with her this first time …
“Sophie? he said.”
”Did I hurt you terribly?”
… Would she never cease to surprise and delight him?
“You did,” she said … And I am hurting now. It is the loveliest feeling in the world.”
Vincent and Sophie, both insecure about themselves and lacking confidence in their ability to love and be loved, crossed a Rubicon when they made love for the first time. Vincent knows he’s not the world’s best lover but muses,
Perhaps that did not really matter, though. They were both lonely people—yes, sexually speaking he was lonely. The comfort and pleasure they could give each other would surely outweigh experience and expertise.
Lovemaking unlocks a barrier that permits Sophie and Vincent to return to his estate—and his concerned family—with confidence. More importantly, in the wider world beyond their intimacy, they are—perhaps for the first time in their troubled lives—secure in the knowledge that they are safely and completely in someone else’s loving care. They are the embodiment of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s memorable quotation:
Life has taught us that love does not consist in gazing at each other but in looking outward together in the same direction.
The Arrangement is another beautifully told Balogh novel.
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