Sometimes you enjoy a book, reading cover-to-cover with a speed usually reserved for eating your way through a family-size potato chip bag, and you have no idea why. Maybe the plot isn’t all that new. Maybe there are flaws in the reasoning by both the heroine and hero. Maybe there are a few (or more than a few) “wait, what just happened?” moments. Maybe there’s an overly annoying character, or an immature character or an unnecessary character. Yet you keep on munching. Debra Mullins’ Two Weeks With A Stranger, an enjoyable read-it-in-two-sittings historical romance, has a bit of that flavor.
Simon Severton, the Earl of Deveringham, sweeps country-born Lucy Heathpot off her feet with thoughtful poems and sweet words. He married for the usual practical reasons: home, hearth and heirs. In Simon’s mind, Lucy’s job is to watch over the estate and the children while he is off in London saving England from a foreign menace. He forgets, however, to clue Lucy into the foreign invaders part of the program.
What starts as a marriage of convenience turns to something not-so-convenient when Simon develops an affection for Lucy. Right after consummating the marriage, Simon heads off to London on his newest assignment: charm, bed and infiltrate the world an Italian Contessa believed to know the intimate secrets of a French spy. Despite the very public wooing of a woman other than his new wife, Simon somehow believes word will not travel back to his left-behind wife in the country. Wrong. Lucy hears and takes action. A mission for a friend provides the perfect subterfuge for her show up on her husband’s doorstep. Soon after, the marriage becomes even less convenient for Simon. Lucy’s presence forces Simon to choose between bedding his wife and bedding his assignment. Being a bit dim for a supposedly smart guy, Simon tries to juggle both.
Since it’s best to start with the bad news, the most obvious place to start then would be with Simon’s alleged affair. But, even the bad knews has a shining light. Here, Mullins saves Simon from being a full-on cad by presenting a man conflicted. He is booksmart and accustomed to sitting behind a desk breaking codes, not escorting divas throughout the ton. He never wanted the assignment and longs to return to the country and his new quiet life with his lovely new wife. Him sleeping around is not the big problem here. No, the issue – the bad news, otherwise knows as the “wait, what happened there?” moment – comes when Lucy realizes her husband is not being unfaithful… and she gets even angrier. Instead of being happy with the news and Simon’s admission that he is falling in love with her, Lucy pushes her husband away and doubts her ability to forgive him. His potentially unpardonable sin? Lying to her about being a spy, thus being a different man from the one she thought she married. It’s a position that’s hard to reconcile with the time period, the person Simon has shown himself to be up to this point, and the reality of the reason for these two marrying in the first place (the marriage of convenience thing).
This is not the classic (i.e. annoying) romance “misunderstanding” where the parties only need to talk for two seconds to resolve all conflict in the book. However, it is an illusory conflict just the same. Lucy’s misgivings about Simon’s spy career do not follow logically from what comes before. Lucy arrives in London ready to find the truth about her husband’s romancing of another woman and equally prepared to fight for her husband’s affection. Then when faced with the real reason for her husband’s actions, Lucy seemingly stops fighting for him.
This flaw takes the plot in an odd direction. Fortunately, strengths exist here to keep the story from being flawed as a whole. Most of those relate to a palpable attraction between Lucy and Simon, and Mullins’ twist on the usual romance archetypes. Simon, while not the masterspy you would expect in terms of his willingness to do whatever needs to be done for the Crown, is a compelling mix of honesty and cluelessness. His parents’ cold relationship shapes him and what he believes a marriage can and should be – and what sex with his wife should consist of – yet he is open to change and understanding. He is at heart decent, having become a spy as a means of giving back for all that life has given to him simply by his birth. He is worthy and, lucky for Lucy, quite the skillful lover. Apparently he has read about more than farming and codes in those books of his.
Lucy also goes against type to some degree. She is attracted to her husband but is not the first to admit being in love. In fact, where her husband admits his feelings, Lucy remains reluctant to reveal hers. In a refreshing move, even though the sex scenes are heated, Lucy does not morph from virgin to sexual goddess in three pages. Sure, she enjoys herself. She’s not a prude. But, she grows into her sexuality in a believable way throughout the book.
The secondary characters, including the scheming countess and the wounded friend of the hero are not new to historical romance. They are stand-ins of the friends and scheming women usually found floating around the ton in this genre. One bright spot in terms of a refreshing character is Lucy’s American friend, Gin Matthews, who is not bound by the same strict rules as the rest of society, yet is forced to play the society game due to her need to marry. The only complaint is that the end to her subplot is predictable and not particularly satisfying.
Despite the plot pitfalls, this book does work. A light air along with a satisfying attraction between Simon and Lucy move the book from a “wait, what just happened?” miss to what is frequently termed “an enjoyable romp” near-hit. Two Weeks With A Stranger may not wow you with its complexity, but it will entertain you. There is no aftertaste, no extra pounds – just a general sense of being charmed without knowing quite how Mullins managed it.