One of the things Miss Bates loves about Marion Lennox’s romances is how kind her characters are and yet still often hurt others. Because that’s what we do, an unkind word, a slip of the sarcastic tongue, a nay in place of, with a small giving of self, what could be a yay. But Lennox also understands and sympathetically portrays what that yay might cost, what vulnerability, uncertainty, and fear have to be overcome to reach assent. Lennox’s Stranded With the Secret Billionaire, and this review’s subject, is a book illustrative of this theme and characterization.
Penelope “Penny” Hindmarsh Firth, at 27, has run away from home. She runs from a bullying father, milk-toast mom, and selfish half-sister whose fiancé and soon-to-be-father of baby is none other than Penny’s ex-fiancé, Brett Taggart. Penny has run from urbane Sydney to NSW and, when the novel opens, is trapped in a rising creek, in her low-to-the-ground pink sports-car accompanied by Samson, her cute-as-a-button-but-useless-in-a-crisis poodle. Enter reclusive billionaire-living-as-sheep-farmer Matt Fraser, astride Nugget, to rescue Penny and ensure Samson’s continued spoilage.
It turns out Penny, despite her wealth, loves to cook and has taken a job at Malley’s Corner. With the waters high, and Matt’s loss of a chef for his farm’s, Jindalee’s, annual sheep-shearing, it looks like Penny’s cooking talents will be needed. And what better way to thank Matt for his rescue and hospitality than to make herself useful over two intense sheep-shearing weeks. The work is hard, long, and there’s barely time to sleep. Penny plunges right into the task at hand, delivering delicious, hearty fare, possible to eat by hand and quickly. And while all this is going on, Matt and Penny meet nightly, on the veranda, to share a laugh, a meal, and get to know each other, grow closer, and give in to mutual attraction
As with all Lennox’s heroes and heroines, Matt and Penny are incredibly likeable. They’re vulnerable without being doormats. They’re funny and endearing. They take the feelings of others very seriously, but never themselves. They love animals and their furry companions are as lively characters, developped and interesting, as they. Lennox’s talents are double-fold. She creates wonderful characters and sets them in incomparably lovely and interesting scenes. Cue a pic-nic and swimming-hole scene for Matt and Penny that is funny (involving Penny’s ancient mount, Daisy), evocative, romantic, and emotionally rich. There be many reasons to read this Lennox, as every Lennox, but read it for this scene especially.
From the opening, when Matt rescues Penny from the rising creek, we have evidence of Lennox’s quirky humour:
“And you always carry a teapot?”
“They might only use tea bags.”
“You don’t like tea bags?”
“I drink lapsang souchong and it doesn’t work in tea bags. I love its smoky flavour. Don’t you?”
“Doesn’t everyone?” he asked and suddenly he grinned. “I’m Matt,” he told her. “Matt Fraser. I’m the owner of Jindalee but I hope you brought your own lapsang souchong with you. Sadly I seem to be short on essentials.”
“I have a year’s supply,” she told him and his grin widened.
“Of course you do. And you are?”
Much goes on here. Firstly, we have a lovely city slicker in the outback contrast and that’s plain fun. Add mild flirtation: a heroine whose insouciance and pluck in the face of dire straits make what is a dour hero grin. Love this, thought MissB., from the get-go.
Lennox never lets go of her ability to stay light, ruefully humorous with her characters’ surfaces and yet establishing them as seriously caring people. Though Matt is a bauxite mine owner, his life is one of hard-working farmer. He loves the land, animals, and cares for the people who work for him. Having a purpose that allows you to care is one of Lennox’s greatest themes. Like Carla Kelly, usefulness is a virtue. It makes characters happy and sets them on the road to being able to open to love’s possibilities; witness Penny when she accepts Matt’s job offer to cook for his shearing team:
“You have no idea how good that makes me feel,” she told him. “Half an hour ago I was trapped in the middle of nowhere feeling useless. Now I have a job and Internet and there’s nothing more I need in the world. Right. You’d better put those chooks to bed and gather those sheep or whatever you have to do. Leave me be, Matt. I’m about to get busy.” He’d been dismissed. She was needed!
Penny’s gently officious dismissal combines with her joy at having purpose. She gets cooking (and the food descriptions are glorious, as always, with a Lennox rom, as good as Neels). Matt, in turn, revels in having a help-meet and companion. This notion establishes the Lennox couple: if it’s joyful and convincing to you, then you will enjoy each and every Lennox rom. Because for Lennox, care, above all, is romantic:
” … you might be a squillionare, but something tells me that all the whinging I’ve just done doesn’t come close to the pain you’re hiding. Thank you for rescuing me yesterday, Matt Fraser. I just wish I could rescue you right back.”
Penny and Matt carry painful past experiences, as many of us do. Their growing love is delight, but their awakening hearts’ growing pains are just that, painful. Penny opens up to Matt about her difficult family and senses that Matt is hiding pain too. Her desire, after his care of her, is to return the emotional rescue. And romance doesn’t get better than two worthy protagonists rescuing each other.
To conclude, Miss Bates will copy word-for-word her hastily-jotted note describing her response to Lennox’s rom, about half-way through reading it: “I heart M. Lennox for believing wholeheartedly in the genre, for writing strength, vulnerability, honour, integrity, and care, affection, kindness, and still be funny as heck.” MissB’s Lennox review in a nutshell. With her reading companion, Miss Austen, Miss B. says of Stranded With the Secret Billionaire, “there is no charm equal to tenderness of heart,” Emma. Nothing could be truer than “tenderness of heart” for Penny, Matt, Samson, Nugget, and Daisy.
Marion Lennox’s Stranded With the Secret Billionaire is published by Harlequin Books. It was released in April and is available at the usual places in the usual formats. Miss Bates received an e-ARC of Stranded from Harlequin, via Netgalley.