Merely the Groom
I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with Regency series featuring a group of male friends. On one hand, it can be really fun to read about a group of friends who bonded when they were young, particularly if the author is good at guy speak. And if you really like the characters, it can be fun to see them again and again. On the other hand, this type of historical is often rife with clichés and can easily become very silly. There is a fine line, it seems, between realistic male camaraderie and hokey Super Friends behavior. I poked fun at series like this in my 2002 purple prose parody for this reason. Merely the Groom has some interesting elements, but unfortunately they are most often overshadowed by hokiness.
Colin McElreath, Viscount Grantham, is on an important, top-secret spy mission in Scotland when he is injured. He can’t call attention to himself by entering the inn (where he’s staying) through the front door, so he climbs up the side of the structure and enters the room next to his. Occupying the room is a sad young woman, Gillian, abandoned by her husband after their marriage in Gretna Green. She lacks the funds to go home and doesn’t know how to face her parents after her elopement. Colin shares a bed with her and holds her through the night. In the morning, she finds an envelope with enough money to return home. Neither expects to see the other again.
But this is a romance; we already know they will see each other again. When Colin returns to London and meets with his friends (known collectively as the Free Fellows), he finds out that someone has been using his alias, Colin Fox. The usurper married and abandoned three women in Gretna Green, and Bow Street Runners chasing the man are starting to look closely at Colin, which could put his important spy work in jeopardy. The Runners are funded by Baron Davies, a wealthy man whose daughter was among the ruined young ladies. Colin decides to meet with Davies, hoping that he can talk him out of his search without revealing too much. But Davies is a wily man with a ruined daughter. He soon convinces Colin that he is duty-bound to marry his daughter, since someone using his name has done so. If Colin refuses, Davies threatens to tell everyone about Colin’s secret Free Fellows work. Since Colin thinks Gillian is lovely and he really needs the money the match will provide, he agrees to it.
Interestingly enough, Gillian and Colin get along well almost immediately. There is some awkwardness about their situation, but they seem to bond immediately after they have sex – sex which for Gillian is waaaaaay better than her miserable experience with her first “husband.” But before they can really concentrate on their happiness, they must find the other Colin and fight assorted forces of evil.
There were some things I really liked about this book. The main one was that Gillian was well and truly ruined. Though she hasn’t been absolutely condemned in the eyes of the ton, the rumors are really starting to fly. This is really different from the many books with heroines who nearly run away, or are kidnapped and then brought home again before any real damage has been done. In this case Gillian has to come to terms with her own naiveté, and her struggles to forgive herself for her foolishness are both realistic and heart-warming. Colin is also likable. It was nice to see him step up to the plate and get married when he needed to, without resorting to emotional hand-wringing.
This book might also be a good choice for those who prefer most of the conflict to be external to the relationship. Once Colin and Gillian get married and sleep together, they are pretty much together. There is little bickering and few misunderstandings. They actually seem to like each other, and both regard their quickie marriage as a fortunate thing. That can be refreshing if you are just coming off a series of books with heroes and heroines who can barely admit to liking each other by the end of the book.
But – and this is a big but – the Free Fellows stuff was so annoying and silly that it almost ruined the book for me. It starts out right at the beginning, with the rules for being a Free Fellow. They include serving your country, not marrying before the age of thirty (unless you really, really have to), and never falling in love. My first reaction was that it was incredibly stupid, until I saw that they had signed it when they were little boys. How cute, I thought. Well, cute for little boys, but less cute for 29-year-old men who are obsessed with their little club. The club dominates the book to the point that it ceases to be about Gillian and Colin, and becomes about the Free Fellows. Instead of dying a natural death at school, the club becomes their whole lives. When the Free Fellows grow up they serve the Crown in a James Bond (or Super Friend, or Mighty Morphin’ Power Ranger) capacity. As far as I could tell, they are connected with the War Office and report to some guy (“They call me Charlie!”), but they also have some degree of autonomy. They talk a lot about what a Free Fellow should do, and whom they could possibly recruit to be a new Free Fellow. Personally, I thought they should try for Aquaman, since there’s a war on and he could swim the Channel. Here’s my nickel’s worth of free advice for authors contemplating this type of series: It’s okay to have a group of friends. It’s even okay to give them a name. But whatever you do, don’t have them constantly refer to it and talk about who’s in it. Most people outgrow this behavior well before they enter full-blown adulthood.
The bottom line is that your enjoyment of this book is likely to hinge on your ability to accept the Free Fellow premise. It’s like a more extreme version of Jo Beverley’s Rogue series. If that worked for you and didn’t seem silly, then you might want to give this a try. After all, the hero and heroine are pretty decent people. But if you tired of friend clubs before you were even old enough to pledge Delta Delta Delta (Can I help ya help ya help ya?) then I’d steer clear.