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hartI’m not sure whether it was a newsletter or a tweet that led me to The Baronet’s Wedding Engagement (2017), by Jessica Hart, but promotions work.  This is the second story in a set of four overlapping stories, by different authors, and I went on to read two of the others.

Max lives in a small English village, looking after a once-grand home, part of a once-grand estate. He was able to rescue the home from his father’s financial scandal, but saved little else, and lost his wife in the process. He sees his children on weekends, remains on civil terms with his ex, and accepts some blame for the marriage ending. So our hero is flawed, brooding, and running a landscaping business to make ends meet.

Flora once had a crush on Max, but he married and she moved on. She moved to London to work as a chef, and live with one, but things did not work out, and she came home to look after her grandfather, and then her grandfather’s cat. Once the cat dies, she can sell the cottage and open a restaurant in London. Meanwhile, she does catering jobs and baking, to the extent she can in her tiny cottage kitchen.

Max’s much younger sister, Hope, is marrying into royalty, and has requested the wedding take place in her home village, with her friend Flora in charge of the catering. Max and Flora work out a deal: She’ll get the use of the large estate house kitchen for her business, in exchange for catering the wedding.  So far things have been relatively gritty and realistic: our couple have pressing financial concerns, difficult pasts, and are now brought together with the common and sensible goal of saving each other money, and ensuring a happy wedding for Hope. It’s a friends become lovers plot, which works well with realistic stories. I can easily forgive one narrative leap: It is sufficiently important to the wedding seating arrangements (and to the protocol mad princess), and therefore to the bride, that Max and Flora have partners at the wedding. To accomplish this, they pretend to be in a relationship. This includes Flora staying with Max when the palace security chief visits, and Flora and Max traveling together (and sleeping together, at first literally) for a pre-wedding planning visit to the principality.

The transition from pretending to be in a relationship to being in a relationship is an easy one to make, but when it comes to making it last there are obstacles, like Flora being a cat person, and Max being a dog person, and Flora’s determination to open her own restaurant in London, while Max is devoted to the family home.

This is a sweet romance, well told, with realistic characters, humour, and moments of pathos. Contemporary English village life is presented with authentic sounding detail, and the overlapping stories ensure secondary characters in this story are themselves complex. There are hints of Gothic in the setting. Hart has led a fascinating life of travel and adventure, and began writing romances to finance her PhD. in Medieval History, so she is able to write with authority on a number of subjects.

westonThe royal wedding is the overall narrative arc for the series, which starts with The Prince’s Bride, by Sophie Weston (a pseudonym for Jenny Haddon). Hope is dealing with her father’s scandal and death by traveling through Europe. While house and dog-sitting in a (fictional) principality, she gets lost in a forest, and is rescued by a handsome ranger, Jonas.

Jonas is a reluctant prince, lawyer in the family firm, and volunteers as a park ranger. He falls for Hope, at least in part because she does not know or care who he is, and he’s reluctant to share that. And she’s reluctant to be with anyone who keeps secrets, or be in the public eye.

Hope’s story is more fairy tale than Max’s. It’s not just the meet of being rescued by a prince in a near magical forest. Jonas and Hope lead relatively charmed lives. While the story is well written, and a little hotter than that of Max and Flora, I found it less appealing. However, I did enjoy the different perspective on the same events, and the additional context on Max’s situation.

fieldingI also read the third book, The Bridesmaid’s Royal Bodyguard, by Liz Fielding.  Ally, a friend of Hope’s, worked for a gossip magazine, but was fired. She’s moved back to her parent’s place in the village, cleans at a local pub, and, at Hope’s request, is handling PR for the wedding. Initially, this means keeping it quiet. She’s also preparing an authorized book about the wedding, and while the sales will benefit a charity Hope is administering, Ally is counting on it to boost her career.

Frederick is head of security for the royal family, and immediately suspicious of a deeply indebted former gossip writer. But she’s the one who publicly greets him as a boyfriend, in order to provide a cover for his early arrival in the village, and kisses him, to stop him from talking.

Ally and Frederick meet and must work together due to Hope’s wedding.  As with Max and Flora, they make up a pair for the wedding seating plan. Ally has financial, career, and trust issues, and Frederick, while free of financial concerns, has trust issues and various wounds, psychological and literal. Despite differences in age and personality, they have more in common with each other than they care to admit, or initially realize, and they assist each other address ghosts in the past (with particularly interesting and refreshing results in one case, and pathos in another). There’s fish out of water humour with Frederick’s introduction to English country life.

Again there is the different perspective on some events, which is entertaining, and the complexity of secondary characters. There are two relationship obstacles that seem a little forced, but I’ll let it go, since the story is otherwise well plotted and well told, with solid characters. I also noted a missed edit – a repeated line – but such is modern publishing. This story is between the fairy tale touch of the first one, and the realism of the second.

mcallisterThe royal wedding happens at the end of the third book, but there is fourth book: The Best Man’s Bride, by Anne McAllister. This is a second chance story, featuring a more peripheral character from the Royal family, and her rock star ex-husband. I have not read this one yet – second chance stories are not my favourites, and I’d just read a set from Donna Alward, but it’s on my list. Online reviews suggest it offers another perspective on events, and is as well plotted as the others. I suspect The Baronet’s Wedding Engagement will remain my favourite of the series, but all are worth reading for the collection of different plots, different perspectives, and different writing styles, exploring aspects of the same event and characters.