Other Carla Kelly reviews are available in the Archives.

Marriage of Mercy
by Carla Kelly
(Harlequin, $6.25, PG) ISBN 978-0-373-29692-7
Carla Kelly remains an undiscovered gem to too many romance readers. Marriage of Mercy is head and shoulders above most of whatís out there in terms of writing quality, uniqueness of plot, and interesting characterizations. I hope Harlequin realizes what a treasure they have, though from the misleading title and cover blurb, it looks like nobody even bothered to read the book first.

Grace Curtis, born the daughter of a baronet, turned herself into a bakerís apprentice when her father died and left her penniless. Grace is twenty-eight and content in her life living above the bakery, where she has become the most valuable worker. Having befriended curmudgeonly old Lord Thompson, who loved her Quimby CrŤme biscuits, she is astonished to find herself the owner of the dower house on his estate and thirty pounds per year when he passes away. His heir, an odious nephew, is infuriated and immediately strips the house of its contents.

The bequest has a catch. Lord Thompson had a bastard son, fathered when he was posted to the Colonies. That son grew up to become Captain Daniel Duncan, American privateer in the current War of 1812, and he is now jailed in Dartmoor Prison. Lord Thompson arranged for Daniel to be paroled to the dower house, with the stipulation that Grace provide his food and care. When the war ends, heíll be a free man. (He does not, however, stipulate that Grace must marry the man in order to keep the inheritance. Shame on you, Harlequin, for sloppy cover work.)

Grace wishes to save enough money to eventually purchase the bakery, so she agrees to the terms. Upon arrival at Dartmoor, she finds Captain Duncan mortally ill. Before dying, he begs her to choose another of his men in her place and give him a chance to live. Desperate, Grace looks around the stinking cell filled with Duncanís men Ė and chooses Rob Inman, the sailing master. Why, she canít say.

Rob is reluctant to leave the other sailors, but they insist. The conditions of the parole are startling: Grace must never let ďDaniel DuncanĒ out of her sight. If he is spied alone, without her accompanying him, he can be shot on sight. Grace must move into the dower house to ensure his safety and to protect him from the new Lord Thompson, who would like nothing more than to kill him. There she nurses him back to health and they form a cautious friendship. Heís a widowed American sailor from Nantucket; sheís an English baker from Devon. But the more Grace learns about Nantucket and the idea of American democracy, where class distinction matters little compared to honest labor and initiative, the more she begins to think there might be a place for her in America. Perhaps by Rob Inmanís side.

Grace is unique. There are few romances in which a penniless aristocrat turns to trade; fewer still in which itís a woman who does so. Normally itís the governess/companion route that is chosen, so Grace is a welcome change. Most of the story is told in her point of view. At the outset, Grace is content with her world in the bakery and dreams of owning it someday, but her dreams reach no further. As she and Rob fall in love, she dares to dream of more, and itís lovely to see.

As for Rob, he adored his late wife, but comes to understand that Gracie challenges him and intrigues him in ways he never experienced before. Her intellect, determination, and self-sufficiency make her the perfect partner for him, yet she can appreciate his protectiveness. At the same time, Rob will do anything to make his way back to Nantucket, and he canít promise Grace that he wonít make a run for it. The reader spends much of the book wondering when heíll try to escape, while understanding his longing to return to his homeland.

Their physical relationship steams gently; Kelly doesnít write hot romance. Itís fitting for the story, though, and readers wonít feel cheated. On another note, the author is a meticulous researcher and historian, and the scenes in Dartmoor Prison are gut-wrenching because they are based on fact.

My only dissatisfaction was Graceís refusal to tell Rob how she felt, even though there was little standing in the way of her doing so. It seemed to drag the book out a bit, and unnecessarily. Thereís a surprise twist near the end, too, where the plot takes a swift turn. I didnít see it coming and had no idea how it would be resolved. It made the final scene all the more poignant.

Hats off to Carla Kelly for writing another wonderful story! Readers, donít miss this one. Grace and Rob are a special couple, indeed, and their romance will linger with you long after you close the book.

--Cathy Sova

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