I was first introduced to Carla Kelly's books on a thread of a forum discussing Beau Crusoe. I finally broke down and read the book, and oh my goodness, was I hooked after that! Off to Amazon I went and bought every Carla Kelly book I could find and afford. Reforming Lord Ragsdale will always ALWAYS be my favorite CK book, but there are just so very many excellent regencies (Libby's London Merchant, Miss Chartley's Guided Tour, The Lady's Companion are just a few other favorites). She quickly became an auto-buy author, and stayed there until the last two or three books. Most of The Wedding Ring Quest is really good and reminded me very much of her older regencies. So I was optimistic that she was back on top again, but something happened at around 80% that knocked me for a loop.
While Mary Rennie was a little too perfect and much too apologetic to Captain Ross Rennie, she was a character of quiet strength, a heroine I like a lot. She's not flamboyant or shrewish or headstrong or stupid. She's just a woman who is nearing 30, unmarried, quite obviously taken advantage of by relatives, and has never had the chance to just enjoy herself.
An engagement ring tossed into Christmas fruitcake batter by a petulant bride-to-be (and Mary's cousin) provides an opportunity for adventure for Mary. Mary has been tasked with locating the correct fruitcake of the four made from the batter, retrieve the heirloom ring (a gift from Elizabeth I to the groom's ancestor) before her cousin's engagement party. Mary is on the trail of the fourth and final fruitcake when she meets Captain Ross Rennie and his 10-year old son, Nathan in Carlisle where Ross is on his own odd quest in search of Cumberland sausage, Whig bread, and Cumberland rum butter.
I enjoyed this road romance as Mary, Ross, and Nathan travel from Carlisle together to find the fruitcake. Along the way, they sampled a delicious lemon-curd pudding and comforted the parents of a fallen sailor. They sampled brown bread and quince jelly served by a bitter vengeance-seeking ex-purser who arranges for Ross to spend a night in a dungeon on trumped-up spy charges. The missing fruitcake as well as Mary and Ross serve as a unique matchmakers for rekindling a 30-year old romance.
Ross seemed to be such a sweet man who has seen too much war, lost too many men and friends to Napoleon, and is struggling to figure out what he'll be able to do after the war ends. I did have trouble with his "list" of the attributes of his perfect mate whom he will fin and marry as soon as the war is over. Several times he used that list to compare Mary to Miss Perfect, and sadly Mary came up lacking each time. Worse, he had the effrontery to tell Mary about the list and brought it up one too many times. It was almost a way to keep her at a distance so that she knew she would never measure up and he would never allow himself to see her as a part of his future. Nathan, Ross's 10-year old son, developed an attachment for Mary that was almost too quick to be entirely believable, but their relationship was touching and not too sweet.
But on page 236, something happens that left me puzzled and momentarily I wondered if someone had swapped pages in my book with another book. When the final fruitcake is dissected, and Mary finds no ring within it, Ross turns into a violent raving maniac. He accuses Mary of being a "bored and lonely spinster" playing a game, attempting to ... Well, I'm not really sure what he's accusing her of. At any rate he raises his hand to strike the post riders who come to Mary's aid when he shouts at her, and then shakes his son off like a pesky dog when Nathan tries to reach for him to calm him down. Ross then turns on Mary as if he's going to strike her, and she's so startled she loses her balance and bumps into a cabinet, blackening her eye. If there were clues that Ross had the potential for such volatility, then they were very subtle because I didn't pick up on them. Worse even than Ross's inexplicable actions was Mary's offering an excuse for him, that "it was an accident."
Of course, he's taken to task by Nathan, fired by his post riders, and eventually he realizes he's been an ass. Within 40 pages, all is worked out, but it's all executed a little too quickly and way too easily to get to the requisite happy ending for my tastes. If The Wedding Ring Quest had ended on, say, page 235, this book would have probably be a keeper despite loose threads and lacking an HEA as yet. Ross's explosion was so jarring, so completely out of character that I felt disconnected and off balance for the balance of the book. Of course, it didn't help his case that he was callus and uncaring of Mary's feelings when extolling the virtues of the imaginary Miss Perfect. Most of The Wedding Ring Quest was very good up to a point, but I'm not sure I'll ever be able to read a Carla Kelly book in quite the same way again.