on October 12th 2017
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~ A French pirate of smoldering passions, Justin St. Briac will never marry. However, when his manipulative mother beckons him to her deathbed in Cornwall, he succumbs to her plea that he take a bride.
~ Mouette Raveneau, once the toast of the London ton, has been ruined by her dead husband’s crimes. With two adolescent sons and no means of support, she reluctantly takes refuge in Cornwall.
A Pretend Marriage…
To grant his mother’s dying wish, Justin devises an elaborate charade. Her days are numbered, after all, and soon he’ll return to his life of unfettered romantic conquests and adventure in France.
But, what if his mother isn’t really dying? And what if he begins to enjoy the very thing he’s avoided his whole life?
It didn’t help Justin St. Briac’s mood when the gray sky began to spit cold raindrops at him. His knees ached, curse them, as he climbed the steep hillside path to his brother’s manor house. Shielding his face with one hand as the rain fell harder, he looked ahead with his good eye and saw Izzie’s painting cottage nearby, just as his brother Gabriel had imagined it a decade ago, on the eve of his wedding.
As that long ago night had worn on, the St. Briac brothers imbibed more and more cognac. Eventually, Gabriel had brought out a sheaf of sketches, enthusiastically describing his plans for a hilltop estate above Polperro, including a light-filled atelier where Izzie could paint. Justin had pretended to listen while silently scoffing at his brother’s dreams. Even now, seeing the handsome manor house come into view, framed in an archway of rhododendrons, he thought that appearances were usually deceiving.
“M’sieur, how fine home your brother has made,” remarked his manservant, Baptiste.
Justin was so deep in thought he’d nearly forgotten Baptiste was walking beside him. “Fine enough, I suppose.”
“But of course,” Baptiste amended quickly, “it pales beside your mansion in Saint-Malo.”
“Do not attempt to placate me as if I were an ill-tempered old man.”
“Certainly not, m’sieur.” The rail-thin Frenchman fell back into his habitual state of silence.
Built of mellow Cornish stone, the home Gabriel and Isabella called Elysium was simple yet handsome, lined with windows and fronted by neatly-trimmed boxwood hedges. Parkland and gardens spread as far as the eye could see. Justin found it odd to think of his younger brother as a prosperous landowner. Odder still was the notion of Gabriel as a contented husband and father who no longer cared for adventure.
It was Justin’s experience that people didn’t change. At least, not in ways that really mattered.
Reaching the house, they were greeted by a plump, ginger-haired housemaid who took Justin’s greatcoat and Baptiste’s hat. Unlike most servants who kept their eyes averted as if they weren’t permitted to be human, this girl gave them bright, welcoming smiles. She was even bold enough to announce that her name was Claire.
Justin saw that the entry hall was spacious, with a tile floor and walls paneled in carved walnut. Although the atmosphere was homey rather than impressive, he had to admit that the effect was not unpleasant. And there were tantalizing smells wafting toward them from a kitchen at the back of the house.
“Mon Dieu,” Justin said, inhaling appreciatively. “It smells like Bretagne.”
“Aye, sir,” said Claire. “That be Madame Kerjean’s fine onion tarte, made with onions brought from Roscoff.” She turned her friendly gaze to Baptiste. “I’ll ask that you wait here, please, while I take M’sieur St. Briac to my master. Then I shall see that you do get a large piece of Madame’s tart!”
Baptiste, who was used to discreetly running a very grand household, bit his lip but allowed Claire to put him in a chair before she led Justin to a door at the back of the house. At first, as she opened it, it seemed they were returning outside, but quickly he realized that he was in a sprawling, open room with floor-to-ceiling windows on three sides and a high, vaulted ceiling. Seeing rows of dwarf citrus trees in pots, Justin realized this must be his brother’s conservatory.
“There you are!” called a familiar voice, and he turned to find his brother, standing at a long, rustic table with two little girls. All three of them wore long aprons, doeskin gloves, and were clearly in the midst of transplanting what appeared to be an exotic cactus.
“Are you Uncle Justin?” asked the younger child, pronouncing his name with a flawless French accent. She walked right over and extended a gloved hand. “My name is Camille St. Briac. Louise and I have been waiting for you for the longest time.”
Justin was instantly captivated. The child couldn’t have been more than four years of age. Blessed with huge eyes of Parisian blue and gleaming tawny ringlets, Camille was already a great beauty.
“Ma belle,” he said softly. “It is an honor to meet you.”
Gabriel had put down his trowel, removed his apron and gloves, and now he took the hand of Camille’s older sister. As they drew near, Justin saw that the other girl was a delicate, serious brunette, perhaps eight years of age, who wore spectacles like her mother. She regarded him with some uncertainty.
“How good it is to see you, mon frère,” said Gabriel. Releasing Louise’s hand, he embraced Justin, who tried not to stiffen. It had been a long time since anyone had touched him with genuine affection.
As greetings were exchanged and Louise bobbed a reserved curtsy, Justin observed that his brother was still fit and lean at forty-two, with only glints of silver in his chestnut hair.
“Grandmère says you are a wicked pirate,” Camille declared, staring at Justin with frank curiosity. “It must be true. You wear an eyepatch!”
Gabriel rolled his eyes. “Enough of that, ma poulette. It is midday and you two must be hungry.” He gestured to Claire. “Go and see Madame in the kitchen.”
Watching the girls leave the conservatory, Justin felt a momentary pang of regret that they didn’t know him.
“I’m sorry that it took Maman’s illness to bring you to our home at last,” Gabriel said, as if guessing his thoughts. “I trust your Channel crossing was uneventful. Did you hire a conveyance?”
“No. Baptiste and I walked up from the harbor.” The pain in his knee intensified as he spoke.
“Ah. I suppose I should have warned you about the steep lane leading up here from the village. Actually, there is a less precipitous drive that leads over to the main road, but no doubt my intrepid brother could doubtless climb a dozen hills like this one.”
Justin looked around for a chair. “What sort of conservatory is this, without any seating areas for guests?”
“I like to keep it just for myself and the plants. It’s much more convenient to be able to move in and out of the house, rather than working in one of the outdoor greenhouses. What’s wrong? Do you need to sit down after your exertions?”
Before Justin could make a sardonic reply, Gabriel took his arm and led him back into the house.
They soon came into a library filled with books of every size and color, ranged along the floor-to-ceiling shelves and precariously stacked on a worn desk near the window. A cheerful blaze beckoned from the fireplace, where a pair of worn leather wing chairs waited for them.
“You’d doubtless like a bit of fortification before going up to see Maman.” Gabriel said, pouring cognac into two crystal glasses. “Shall I order food?”
“No. Later, perhaps.” As Justin settled into one of the unfashionable chairs, he found that it was surprisingly comfortable compared to those in his own magnificent, immaculate library. He was beginning to relax when his brother spoke again.
“What has happened to your eye?”
Justin wanted to flinch, but managed instead to shrug lightly. “Ah, just a misstep during a duel. I never think of it now.” Deftly, he changed the subject. “Where is your beautiful wife? I would much rather see Izzie than our mother.”
He was gratified to see Gabriel’s body tense. “Isabella is in London for a few days. She’s gone to visit her friend Mouette Raveneau Brandreth. Perhaps you remember her from our wedding?”
“I believe I do.” To Justin’s surprise, a hot tide of memory swept over him at the mention of Lady Brandreth. He’d nearly forgotten her – until that very moment. “She is well?”
“Unfortunately, Mouette has fallen on hard times – but that’s another conversation.” Taking a drink of cognac, Gabriel added, “Isabella was happy that you were coming to see Maman and looks forward to seeing you when she returns.”
“Unfortunately, I will not be here. I must return to France as soon as possible.”
“You have just arrived but you are leaving?” Gabriel murmured dryly.
“Correct.” Unable to resist dangling a reminder of what his married brother was missing, Justin added, “A beautiful woman awaits my return, quite possibly in my bed.”
“Indeed?” Gabriel showed no sign of envy. “Is it Azelma Marchand?”
Justin blinked at the mention of the woman he had dallied with years ago. “Are you in jest? Azelma is far too old for my taste.”
“How fortunate that you alone, at forty-eight, have remained unmarked by age,” Gabriel said dryly. “In view of your crowded social calendar, we are grateful you could travel to Cornwall, even for the briefest of visits.”
Justin frowned. Was his brother mocking him? “If you imagine that I want to be with Maman any longer than necessary, you are mistaken.”
“I trust you don’t plan to tell her that.”
“Do you blame me for feeling manipulated to make this journey? I have a busy life, as you know, with a great many responsibilities.” Drinking the fine cognac, Justin was relieved to feel the pain ease in his knee. “I came because you informed me I must, but after I see our parents, Baptiste and I will return to sleep on Deux Frères and set sail for France with the morning tide.”
“I see.” Gabriel leaned back in his chair and nodded in a way that Justin found extremely annoying. “You feel nothing when you consider the prospect that Maman may soon pass from this world?”
Justin couldn’t suppress a harsh laugh. “Do you really expect me to believe that she is truly at death’s door? For God’s sake, since the moment of my birth, I have been forced to watch her play out her little dramas and call the tune while our father danced – and you and I foolishly joined in. I vowed long ago never to join in her games when I was old enough to have a choice in the matter.” Waiting in vain for his brother to agree with him, Justin reached for his snuffbox. “I will tell you plainly that I felt liberated when Maman and Papa decided to move their household to Cornwall after your marriage.”
“Indeed?” Gabriel’s tone suggested that he was unconvinced. “You could have come to visit. After you returned from your adventures with Surcouf in the Indian Ocean, our parents expected you to appear. Have you even seen their little home? It’s quite charming.”
“Leaving France was their choice. Can you blame me for feeling relieved that Maman would no longer be turning up on my doorstep, claiming to have run away from Papa?”
Gabriel’s tone was maddeningly calm. “No matter their faults, they are still our parents. And it does appear that Maman is desperately ill. Before Isabella left for London, she insisted that they come here to stay, so that we could look after them.”
“Maman is plotting something,” Justin insisted.
“Ah yes, plotting. Perhaps a pastime that you yourself learned at her knee?” came his wry response.
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~~Reviewed by AnnMarie~~
His Make-Believe Bride is the 5th book in the Rakes & Rebels: The Raveneau Family series by Cynthia Wright. I have been fortunate enough to read the whole series so far, but this book can easily be read as a stand-alone if preferred.
Justin St. Briac, a French pirate, is 48 years old. He’s free-spirited and has never married, nor does he have any intention to. He is so adamant that he will never marry that when his mother, on her deathbed, says her dying wish is that she see him married, he says he is already engaged. His plan is to hire a woman to pretend to be his betrothed, have a faux wedding, and stay together only long enough for his mother to pass away.
Mouette Raveneau is 36 and a widow. She has been left shunned by society and practically penniless after her shamed husband, a Baron no less, dies. Her family persuade her to spend some time in Cornwall, just until she can sort out a way to provide for herself and her two young sons.
One thing that Mouette excels at is interior design, making a house into a beautiful home. When Justin decides he must let a house for his marriage ruse, he offers Mouette the job of making the house into a home, one that will convince his mother that it is to be his marital home. Of course, it’s not long until he realises that she would be the most believable, perfect woman to be his pretend betrothed.
Mouette agrees. The money he has promised to pay her will set her and her sons up for a very long time. Will spending so much time together prove to both of them that love and perhaps a real marriage wouldn’t be the end of the world? They definitely have a very real attraction to each other which leads to some very sensual, steamy scenes between them. Are they confusing lust for love?
This was a wonderfully researched and written story, from the beautiful descriptions of the land, the homes and the clothes of the time, to the wonderful characters and all their foibles. I think Justin’s mother is a fabulous character, even though she’s not won Justin’s affections by her behaviour in the past. Justin and Mouette have so many demons to overcome and watching their relationship develop and see how they each help the other to emotionally heal was a joy. Mouette’s sons are as different as chalk and cheese, one being adorably loveable, the other being an older surly boy. Their love for a dog they end up adopting and watching the dog’s antics especially around Justin made me smile or laugh out loud. There was only one thing I felt amiss in this book; there are two instances where I would have liked to have known more about the situation, that is, how Mouette reacted when she found out something, also, how Justin discovered something and his reaction to it. It’s frustrating to not be able to explain more, but I don’t want to give spoilers. Suffice to say that despite not having those two things discussed more, I still thoroughly enjoyed this story, it is just a lovely, at times emotional, feel-good book that I highly recommend.