Only a Promise
This is the fifth book in the Survivor’s Club series by Ms. Balogh and the book highlights one of the things I love most about her work: Relationships between mature adults who know how to hold a conversation. The ability to communicate is at the heart of this story since the romance begins with a most unusual discussion.
Through no fault of her own Chloe Muirhead is an unsuitable marriage prospect. Her last disastrous foray to London for the Season has driven a bit of a wedge between her and her beloved family and she has taken refuge at the home of the Duchess of Worthingham. The Duchess was her mother’s godmother and the dearest friend of Chloe’s grandmamma. While that fine lady insists that Chloe is a very wanted visitor, Chloe views herself as more of an unpaid companion. It is a bitter pill to swallow for a young lady whose beauty had justifiably had her hoping for marriage and a home of her own but she tries to meet her lot in life with cheerful goodwill. Then a most unexpected opportunity presents itself.Ralph Stockwood, the Earl of Berwick, has been summoned to Manville Court, home of the Duke of Worthingham. He has no doubt that the “request” comes from the duchess rather than the duke since it is his grandmother who is most anxious to remind him of his responsibilities as heir to the estate and title. He also has no doubt that the primary purpose of the visit is to remind him that his grandfather isn’t getting any younger and that it is imperative that he find a wife and get an heir. Since he bears a fondness for both the duke and duchess he dutifully heads to Manville to be reminded of his obligations to the family.
Ralph is correct in his assumption as to the purpose of the visit and on the very first evening he is there his grandmother urges him to take the business of finding a bride very seriously this Season. While his grandfather insists he is fit as a fiddle she is convinced his health is rapidly declining and speed is of the essence. Ralph affably agrees to do his very best to comply with her wishes. Chloe, rolling wool for the duchess’s knitting, is a silent witness to the entire conversation.
At this point I expected Ralph’s grandmother to point out what an excellent bride Chloe would make but that is not what happens. Instead, the following morning Chloe approaches Ralph offering herself as a possible wife. The conversation advises the reader and Ralph of why she is so very ineligible as marriage material but is pretty much a bust otherwise. Ralph stays one more day and then leaves for London. Then after a conversation with the unofficial leader of the Survivor’s Club the Duke of Stanford he sees the light and finds himself riding back to Manville Court and proposing marriage to Chloe.
I initially had my reservations about Ralph and Chloe making a go of the relationship. Unlike the other Survivor’s Club members who hide their afflictions beneath at least a modicum of charm, Ralph initially treats Chloe with a coldness that borders on contempt. He and her brother had gone to school together and the two had taken opposite stances regarding the war, a fact which still chafes at Ralph. It is clear that resentment lingering from that relationship plays at least a very small part of why he initially rejected her proposal. Combining that with his own confessed inability to feel empathy and the vast difference between their stations I was a bit afraid he would wind up being a bit of a heartless hero. It didn’t help that very soon after they are married the duke dies and Ralph, for imminently practical reasons, reneges on his promise that the two of them will live in the country forgoing any time in London. However, Ralph does redeem himself by being gentle and kind in most of their interactions after their marriage and is right beside her when an important confrontation takes place. By the end I was convinced he would make a loving husband and be exactly what Chloe needed.
Chloe’s kindly and practical nature saves the fiasco of the broken promise from being a big disaster that ruined their relationship for pages on end. Having read one too many books with that plot, I really appreciated that. She rallies rather quickly and realizes that necessity has handed her a chance to prove her mettle. She had fled London when things had gone badly before. Now she gets a chance to return with her head held high, the wife of one of the most powerful peers in the realm. Also, as she gets to know her fellow Survivor’s Club wives and their families, as the friend of some powerful allies. Throughout the pages of the novel Chloe proves worthy of her triumphs and I was happy to see them happen for her.
Perhaps my favorite aspect of this novel is how adroitly Ms. Balogh utilizes the marriage of convenience trope. Ralph and Chloe grow their love slowly, basing it on mutual respect, commitment, compassion and passion. I appreciated how their integrity as people enabled them to heal each other of some past hurts and build the kind of relationship that weathers storms. As a woman married over two decades myself I can safely say that after the initial magic wears off you need some strong foundation stones to build on. These two had them. I appreciated too, how the author emphasized that it is the decision to have a good marriage that is actually the basis of a good marriage. Both Ralph and Chloe made that decision and that is what fertilized the blossoming of their love.
My quibble with the story was the saccharine sweet solutions to family tiffs. Chloe’s sister had done something which truly stained the honor of the whole family and it was treated with forgiveness and indulgence. Real families rarely react that way to minor squabbles much less someone really rocking the boat. Everyone was also quick to brush aside Chloe’s mother’s actions when once again they had some lasting repercussions. Some minor resentment and grumbling would not have been amiss.
Overall though this is a wonderful Regency romance with a sweet, slow love story. I am happy to recommend it.