Desert Isle Keeper
For the Love of a Soldier
This début book from Victoria Morgan is easily one of the best historical romances I’ve ever read. In fact, I don’t think I’ve felt this excited about a new author in the genre since I read Cecilia Grant’s A Lady Awakened. The storyline is fairly simple, but this allows the author the time to fully develop her characters and to write a truly warm and tender romance peppered with some of the best dialogue I’ve seen for some time. She has also chosen to set her story in a period not often used in historical romances – that of the mid-nineteenth century – and to shine a spotlight on some of the less than glorious aspects of the Crimean War.
The protagonists are Garrett Sinclair, Earl of Kendall and previously a Captain in the British Army, and Lady Alexandra Langton, who is fleeing from an unwanted marriage arranged by her tyrannical uncle. She is in hiding and has no family to support her; she is almost destitute and in desperation has decided to gamble her last hundred pounds in the hope of increasing it so that she can support herself for a while longer.
Of course, entering a gambling house is out of the question for a well-bred young lady, so instead she inveigles an invitation to a party at which she knows there will be some high-stakes play. But even then, a young lady would not have been allowed to play for more than pin-money, so she has to disguise herself as a man in order to be able to participate.
I admit that this is one of my least-favorite tropes in historical romance; the heroine dressing as a man and able to pass as one without anyone being suspicious. That said, however, it is clear that this is not the first time she has managed it, and there are indications that she has done more than just put on a suit and a fake mustache (okay, so I’m kidding about the mustache!) and she is able to get away with being thought to be an adolescent boy. Unfortunately – and probably predictably – she loses at cards to Garrett Sinclair, hero of the Crimea, survivor of the infamous Charge of the Light Brigade and well-known rakehell. But Garrett, recognizing her despair and believing her to be a mere boy, terribly out of his depth, gives her her money back, telling her that while he will take money from a man, he draws the line at ruining boys.
Later that night, Alex overhears two men discussing a plot to murder the Earl of Kendall. She doesn’t know who the conspirators are, or any details, but she sees a way to repay her debt to Garrett, and informs him of the plot. Seeing her as his one lead to the would-be murderers, and still believing her to be a boy, Garrett insists on taking her home with him. But they are set upon along the way and when Alex is knocked unconscious, her disguise is dislodged.
The rest of the story is concerned with Garrett’s attempt to discover the identity of the people who want him dead, but while this mystery drives the plot, it is not the main focus of the book. Instead of giving us a romp or an adventure story filled with twists and turns, the author spends time developing her characters, gradually revealing their secrets and fears and building a very tender romance. She makes good use of her setting, too, and doesn’t shy away from exploring the horror and brutality of war. Captain Sinclair is regarded as a war hero, and Tennyson’s paean to the bravery of the ‘six hundred’ – The Charge of the Light Brigade seems to be on everyone’s lips – but the picture Victora Morgan paints is far from a glamorous one.
Garrett suffers from what we would probably today term PTSD, coupled with a massive dose of survivor’s guilt. Since leaving the army, he’s spent his time gambling, whoring, and drinking, wanting only to forget his experiences – although we learn at the beginning of the book that he has eschewed most of those activities for the past two years. He no longer drinks because he needs to feel he’s in control of his actions in any given situation and he no longer seduces women because he can’t feel any more.
Alex senses this darkness in Garrett and wants to help. She has spent some time working at the Chelsea Hospital with wounded soldiers and veterans, and found that the simple act of listening seemed to help them. Fortunately, the author does not present Alex as being able to offer Garrett a miracle cure for his PTSD – but rather has her recognize that is beyond her, but that her support and willingness to listen when he’s ready will help him come to terms in his own way.
The scene where he finally tells her the truth about what happened at Balaclava – the real events rather than those immortalized in Tennyson’s poem – has the emotional impact of a sledge-hammer cracking a nut. It’s not glorious or pretty – and Alex does exactly the right thing. She listens. She lets him get it all out and then helps him to come to his own conclusions as to why he survived when so many did not.
Despite the background of war and destruction, there is a lot of humor in the book. Garrett is witty, flirtatious and devastatingly charming, and one of the biggest delights of the book for me was the superb dialogue. Garrett’s relationships with his brother-in-law and sister, the Earl and Countess of Warren, is obviously a very close, warm one, and the way they bicker and tease each other makes for some of the funniest moments in the story.
Alex is independent and spirited without being TSTL or stupidly stubborn for the sake of it. She’s loyal to those she trusts and quickly learns when Garrett needs pushing and when he needs to be left alone. If I have one quibble with the book, however, it’s that Alex’s reasons for refusing Garrett’s offer of marriage are rather flimsy. We don’t get an explanation for her appearance at the card tables in the opening chapter until quite late into the story, although there are hints throughout that there is something buried in her past that means she can never form a lasting relationship with a man. When these reasons are finally revealed, to say they are anticlimactic is an understatement. But Garrett deals with matters in his own, inimitable way, and all impediments – real or imagined – are swept aside.
It’s difficult to believe that this is Victoria Morgan’s first published novel, but it is – and it’s a remarkable achievement. Not only has she crafted a truly wonderful love story, she’s also shed some light on a fascinating historical event without shying away from showing us its darker side. The book is beautifully and intelligently written, the characterization is excellent and the dialogue just sparkles. There is plenty of romantic tension between the leads, and the scene where they finally make love is one of the most sensual I’ve read. For the Love of a Soldier is very highly recommended.