Is it fair to Mary Balogh that she’s just so ridiculously good? At her best she is able to convey her characters’ overwhelming anguish of despair coupled with the deep determination of love when they love but believe their love is not returned. At her less than best, you still feel the anguish and love, but not as intensely. Her newest historical romance is really good but not really, really good. Slightly Married tells the story of two people who fall in love despite their own intentions and chosen course of life, and how honor can earn love, as well as accolades.
Eve Morris was raised with a lady’s education despite being the daughter of a coal-miner (a very wealthy coal-miner). Her brother is serving in the Army in Europe, and she is living at her estate, which her father bequeathed to her after getting incensed with his son for becoming a soldier. Eve collects strays – “lame ducks” – and she has hired servants whom no one else would, as well as taken in two orphans who would otherwise have been sent to the orphanage. She is managing, capable, opinionated and also, oddly enough, naïve and romantic. She has not married, even though her frequent refusal of proposals infuriated her father, who wanted to see her established in a higher social class than the one from which he had come. Eve is close with her brother and is waiting for word from a man to whom she is secretly betrothed. She is content with her life, secure in her freedom and honest in her life’s work.
Colonel Lord Aidan Bedwyn is on the battlefield when a dying soldier catches his attention. It is Percy Morris, a man who had saved Bedwyn’s life a few years earlier. As he is dying, he makes Bedwyn promise that he will protect his sister Eve, “no matter what.” Bedwyn, true to his word, travels to bring Eve the bad news, wondering all the while what made Percy so vehement in his last dying breath. Bedwyn is the second son of a large, titled family. His older brother is the Duke of Bewcastle, and like many second sons, Aidan has become a military man, even though his heart is with the land and country life. He has hardened his demeanor so he appears as if he is a humorless, proud man, and that impression is furthered by his great height, hooked nose and dark, forbidding eyes. He is in England on a two-month leave, at which point he plans on returning to the Continent and perhaps wooing a woman who would be comfortable following the drum. All that changes, however, when he begins to assert his right to protect Eve, “no matter what.”
Eve’s father left his estate to Eve with an odd proviso, one that will make her destitute if she does not marry (the proviso is only exercised if Percy is deceased). Aidan, having learned of her situation, proposes that they get married in a true marriage of convenience in that they will never see each other again after the ceremony. He will return to the Army and she will remain on her estate. As they do not travel in even the same league of social circle, there is no chance they will encounter each other. Eve reluctantly agrees, since to refuse would cause her lame ducks to be cast out in the world. Aidan is determined to keep the marriage a secret from his exceedingly haughty brother, and the two (accompanied by Eve’s Welsh aunt) set out for London to procure a special license.
Eventually, of course, the Duke learns of the marriage, and insists that Eve, like it or not, is part of the lofty Bedwyn brood, and not to acknowledge her as Aidan’s wife would disgrace the family. He forces her hand to join the family in London during the victory celebrations (England has triumphed over Napoleon), even though Aidan has insisted she owes him and his family nothing. Aidan’s attitude gets Eve’s back up, and she goes through with the ritual of being presented to the ton, getting further and further entangled with Aidan’s family. She still thinks he is a proud, stern man, although she has seen glimpses of the man within that make her wonder about him. He, meanwhile, has seen Eve take his family, and most astonishingly his brother, on, and he is beginning to want a real relationship with her, even though he still plans on returning to the Army after his leave.
Eve and Aidan, despite both being so confident of themselves, are completely unsure about their feelings for each other, and they have absolutely no clue about how the other one feels. Even after things between them have progressed beyond a marriage of convenience (and not just the obvious thing), they are not certain what their relationship will be in the future. Both are so managing and set in their ways that it is hard for either one to permit themselves to be vulnerable. It takes a surprising act of courage on one of the character’s parts to allow them to reveal their love for each other.
Slightly Married is a deep, emotionally resonant romance with flawed but principled characters, much more than wallpaper history, and a plot that has a ripple effect beyond the main characters. Grading was difficult because the book was this close to being an all-time keeper, and yet it lacked that indefinable something that characters DIK’s in my mind. Still, this is a quietly strong novel, not one that immediately tears you up inside, but one that has real characters who make choices that are true and honorable.