In 1868 the town of Salisbury, North Carolina, the site of a prisoner of war camp during the war, is trying to rebuild itself while the emotions of both the ex-Rebel townspeople and the Reconstructionist military are high.
Into this town enters Colonel Max Woodard, ex- prisoner of the Salisbury camp and new commanding officer of the army troops. Max has hidden scars from his years in the camp, bearing the guilt of surviving the camp that many did not survive. He has hopes to make things right somehow, and to ensure that the townspeople never forget their lack of compassion for those prisoners.
Maria Markham is one of those townspeople. Her fatherís home has become the official billet for the commanding officer, although they have received none of the promised rent money. Her father is dying of a weak heart, her mother died when she was a child and the war took her two brothers and her fiancť from her. She has every reason to hate the Yankees.
Max and Maria are enemies forced to endure each otherís company. At first, it is because Max decides to irritate the obviously annoyed woman and demands she serve him and attend to the duties of his housekeeper and cook. Maria is forced to endure this to provide the care her father needs. But it soon becomes obvious that both are reluctantly attracted to the other.
A friend of Mariaís tells Max that Maria will only believe his actions, not his words. Although Max does not set out to see if this is true, his caring nature comes out strongly around Maria. He offers his physician to care for her father; he assists her in caring for her friendís two boys, and recruits her help. As Max comes to know the town and sees that he can get farther with honey than vinegar, he asks for her assistance in understanding the townspeople. He realizes that the most he can do for the men who died in the prison is to help the town recover from the war and build a cemetery in their honor.
Maria is a strong woman, carrying the burdens of many on her shoulders. She feels an obligation to her childhood friends and takes on many of their worries. One friend is ill, and her husband is a drunk, so Maria cares for her children. Another friend has become a prostitute to survive the war, and Maria defends her to the Yankees and the southern ladies, alike. But the largest burden that Maria carries is the knowledge that she is pregnant from one night of passion, and she is aware that once her pregnancy becomes known, she and her father will be ostracized.
From this develops a complex plot and satisfying romance between Max and Maria. Although each are battling demons from their past which present obstacles, they see their potential for future happiness in each other. The additional complications from the townspeople and the duties of running the military are real situations with which the couple must deal. Unlike many stories of post Civil War years, there are no villains and heroes, there are just people trying to survive and rebuild their lives. The historical facts are interwoven with the day-to-day living conditions with ease. There was one scene when Max was undressing Maria and the complexities of her outfit makes me wonder how any couple ever had a hurried clandestine meeting!
The depth of the characters is truly the heart of this story. Maria is strong, yet vulnerable. She is sensible, yet has moments of despair and angst that are heartbreaking. Max has nightmares about the camp, yet is a pillar of strength in every situation. Their poignant conversations are just one of the endearing qualities they possess. The townspeople and the soldiers are well-thought-out characters with their own complexities rarely seen in a romance novel.
Reavis does a masterful job of slowly unveiling the intricacies of her story, drawing me into the variety of possibilities and then not disappointing with the actual details. And all the while, slowly increasing the understanding between Max and Maria that finally allows them to proclaim their love for each other.
The Bride Fair is an engrossing tale of the post-war South not often seen, and an uplifting romance between two fascinating multi-dimensional characters. Since I recently discovered Cheryl Reavis, I have been looking forward to this book. Having read it, I will now add her to my list of sure-to-read authors.