The Improper Wife by Diane Perkins
(Warner, $5.99, PG) ISBN 0-446-61437-8
****
Captain John Grayson, younger son of the Earl of Summerton, has returned to London from the war in Spain. His pregnant Spanish wife was killed there, and it was deemed prudent for him to leave Spain briefly to give her father time to calm down. Gray had married her after a night of ill-advised carousing with two women of good families arranged by a fellow officer, Leonard Lansing, had resulted in pregnancy.

A pregnant young woman comes to his hotel door asking for Captain John Grayson. Maggie Delaney insists that she is married to Captain John Grayson, but Gray is not the same man. Things take an unexpected course when in a matter of minutes she delivers her baby son with Gray’s help. Gray cannot throw her and her infant out into the street so he contacts his cousin Lord Caulfield and his wife Tess to get help for the woman. He makes arrangements for her care and leaves to return to the war.

Tess finds marriage papers in Maggie’s bag. She recognizes Gray’s signature on them. Tess and her husband agree that as his wife, the only proper place for Maggie and the child to stay is with Gray’s father. Lord Summerton had forever banished Gray from his childhood home after he bought his Army commission. Nevertheless, he grudgingly permits Maggie to stay. Also in residence are Lady Palmely, Gray’s older brother’s still-grieving widow, and the present Lord Palmely, young Rodney, who is Lord Summerton’s heir. Two years pass.

Gray returns to London from Waterloo. He learns from his cousin about the marriage papers and that Maggie has been living at Summerton. In spite of his father’s decree, he goes there to confront the imposter.

He finds things very different from what he expects. His once-robust father is in failing physical and mental health. His pretend wife may be an opportunist, but she has become invaluable in the management of the house and the estate. What is he to do now?

Soon after I began reading The Improper Wife, I thought, “She writes like Joan Wolf.” From me, this is high praise indeed – I’ve been a fan for many years. Her heroes are strong, skillful men who don’t spend all their time wallowing in angst even if they’ve got some trauma in their past. Her heroines are reasonable, capable women who don’t throw hissy fits or stamp their foot even when others are acting stupidly around them. They fall in love because they’re right for each other and being together is the only thing that makes sense. Why can’t all romance novelists write like that?

In her American debut, Diane Perkins gets it exactly right. With Captain John Grayson and Maggie Delaney, Ms. Perkins has created two characters who act like intelligent adults gradually discovering love. The success of The Improper Wife rests squarely on the shoulders of John Grayson, who’s one of the most appealing heroes I’ve met between the pages of a book in quite some time. Gray is the best kind of hero –honorable and dependable. When he makes a mistake, he doesn’t ignore the consequences. This is a hero who deserves happiness. Maggie is a decent heroine who is trapped into an unwanted situation because she has no other options, but she keeps her secrets overlong and doesn’t bring the same vitality to the plot that Gray does.

The fake marriage is a familiar stock plot to romance readers, but a new twist on an old theme is always welcome. What distinguishes this version from previous ones is how Gray responds to the particular circumstances. This being a romance, there’s no doubt that there will be a happy ending, but the story along the way breathes new life into this old standard.

Diane Perkins is an author to watch. Fortunately, she has two other romances already published in England under the name of Diane Gaston so we can hope readers won’t have to wait too long for her next book.

--Lesley Dunlap


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