Wednesday 18 October 2023

CBR15 Book 62: "The Marquis Who Mustn't" by Courtney Milan

Page count: 328 pages
Rating: 4 stars

This is an ARC I received from the author. My opinions are not influenced by my free copy. I have also already pre-ordered the book.

Official book description:
Miss Naomi Kwan has long wanted to take ambulance classes so that she can save lives. But when she tries to register, she’s told she needs permission from the man in charge of her. It would be incredibly wrong to claim that the tall, taciturn Chinese nobleman she just met is her fiancé, but Naomi is desperate, and desperate times call for fake engagements. To her unending surprise, Liu Ji Kai goes along with her ruse. 

It’s not that Kai is nice. He’s in Wedgeford to practice his family business, and there’s no room for “nice” when you’re out to steal a fortune. It’s not that the engagement is convenient; a fake fiancée winding herself into his life and his heart is suboptimal when he plans to commit fraud and flee the country. His reason is Kai and Naomi were betrothed as children. He may have disappeared for seventeen years, but their engagement isn’t actually fake. It’s the only truth he’s telling.

Naomi works hard to help her parents run the inn in Wedgeford and rarely says or does anything that could be perceived as making trouble. She feels plain and unappreciated and while she's received several offers of marriage, they're all from men who clearly just want someone to cook and clean for them. She fears becoming just like her mother, who seems to live an unexciting and quiet life, in a loveless union with Naomi's father. She's not entirely sure why the handsome man she ran into by accident in Dover has agreed to pose as her fiancée, but he seems to see things in her that no one else has.

Liu Ji Kai is the son of a disgraced con man who swindled most of the adults in Wedgeford and fled into the night, abandoning his six-year-old son to face the wrath of the villagers. Kai has worked since he was fourteen to distance himself from his odious father. He wants desperately to repay all of the inhabitants of Wedgeford who suffered for his father's actions, but the only way he can think of to do so is to commit one last audacious fraud, after which he will need to leave the country and disappear. 

While he was young, his father arranged a marriage between Kai and Naomi. So Naomi asking him to pretend to be her fiancée isn't really a lie. He also thinks that once Naomi's friends and family discover his return and that he's supposedly a serious suitor to Naomi, they're going to warn her away from him immediately. He is very clear to her that he's not to be trusted and that he is an excellent liar, but he also spends weeks restoring the abandoned cottage in which he once lived and starts doing pottery, all while refusing help from anyone in the village. He insists on paying for all his meals at the inn, and once he actually gets his kiln working, he keeps making beautiful pottery and keeps insisting the villagers take some for free, as it would only be going to waste otherwise.

Kai keeps being surprised that while a few of the villagers are understandably upset and distrustful of him, the majority seem to welcome him back and try to make him comfortable as part of the community. Kai is so deeply aware of the wrongs his father did, and while he has spent half his life living away from his father and trying to undo the man's mistakes, he still hears his father's cruel and unforgiving voice in his head. He desperately tries to keep himself apart from the townsfolk in general and Naomi in particular. Kai has lived his entire life holding himself separate from those around him, never allowing himself to create any bonds. Attachments just lead to complications. He knows he's going to leave Wedgeford after his audacious fraud is complete, he'll never actually be able to marry Naomi - so he has to keep from falling for her (good luck with that).

Naomi is fully aware that Kai has some sort of grand plan and that he's not telling the entire truth about his stay in Wedgeford. However, just like everyone else in the village, she sees how honest and hard-working he really is, and having accepted the fact that she might not ever find someone to love or marry, she is pragmatic about the fact that while Kai might not stay forever, he sees her and cares for her like no other when he's around. She feels a few months of being loved and happy is better than a lifetime of mundane chores and loneliness.

Naomi is forced to reevaluate a lot about herself and her family and the ideas she's had about her little world. While her self-esteem and self-image are rather warped at the beginning of the story, she trusts her own instincts and despite him constantly warning her away, Naomi trusts Kai and believes him to be a good and caring man. No matter what his words about being a liar and a fraud say, his actions prove time and time again that he is honest, hard-working, and stubborn to a fault. He never accepts any kind of kindness or gesture of help from anyone and spends so much time keeping himself apart from village life.

Kai's life has been pretty awful since he was a young child. Abandoned in Wedgeford for months after his father ran off, having stolen the life savings of many of the townsfolk, he was entirely reliant on the charity of others to survive. His father eventually came to collect him, but kept uprooting him from new homes, because they kept having to flee and create new identities. Once Kai became somewhat older, his father demanded that he help out in the fraudulent schemes and punished him harshly every time he made a mistake. Even when he tries not to, Kai has internalised his father's lessons too well and refuses to believe that there is anything worthwhile about himself. He is so prepared for being shunned in Wedgeford because of the past, but entirely flummoxed when people start trusting him and wanting to include him in things. He is ruthless about himself and reacts way worse to kind treatment than abuse and harsh words.

Chloe and Jeremy, the protagonists of the first book in the series, The Duke Who Didn't, do eventually appear in the story, but not until about two-thirds of the way in. It was lovely to catch glimpses of their married life and the comfortable existence they've made for themselves in Wedgeford. While I really enjoyed this story, I didn't love it as much as I did Chloe and Jeremy's love story. There is quite a lot more angst in this story, and it takes Kai a long time to acknowledge that he deserves love and can make a happy ending with Naomi. If it didn't hit me quite as much in the swoony feels as the previous book, this is still a Courtney Milan novel. If you've liked any of her previous books, this is well worth your time.  The first book made me intensely hungry, this one taught me a lot of fascinating things about pottery.

Judging a book by its cover: I think this cover is lovely, even if the people on it look a bit stiff. The passionate embrace on The Duke Who Didn't felt more natural. Nevertheless, there are attractive Asian people embracing, and the woman doesn't appear to be wearing a photoshopped wedding dress. I will happily take it over many of the alternatives.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

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