The Captain's Christmas Bride
I freely admit that I can’t walk past a compromised-into-marriage story without giving it at least a second and third look. The Captain’s Christmas Bride sucked me in straight away with the immediate clash of personalities between the two protagonists; the spoilt princess used to getting her own way, and the blunt-spoken, somewhat forbidding ex-naval man who is utterly furious at having been duped by a mere chit of a girl – and one he doesn’t even like very much at that.
The thing that lifts what could have been a fairly run-of-the-mill story into the above average bracket is the way in which Annie Burrows gradually reveals the heroine not to be at all what she seems to be, and shows both principals coming to a greater understanding of each other through their interactions with one another and with those around them.
Now aged twenty, Lady Julia Whitney, daughter of the Earl of Mountnessing, is the apple of her father’s eye. She has been his hostess since the death of her mother (his second wife) and he has indulged her in almost everything – except when it comes to her choice of a husband. Julia wants to marry David, a young man she has known for several years and who is studying to be a doctor, but her father won’t hear of it. David is below her in station and the earl believes he is a fortune hunter. Desperate to get her own way on this, Julia concocts a plan with the help of a couple of friends; disguised in a rather daring gown and wearing a mask, she will entice David away from that evening’s masquerade ball and take him somewhere quiet and dark where they will be discovered (by her friends) engaged in some illicit kisses. Once she is compromised, her father will have no alternative but to allow the match.
Everything goes according to plan. David follows Julia to the deserted and very dark orangery and kisses her with the sort of passionate fervour that makes her head spin and her knees buckle. Before long, he’s under her skirts and she’s on her back, an enthusiastic partner in her own ruin. Julia hadn’t intended things to go quite so far, but as they will have to get married now, she is not too concerned. Until, that is, she and her lover are discovered by her friends … and David, who is quite clearly appalled.
Julia is horrified when she discovers that the man she had believed to be David is, in fact, Captain Lord Alec Dunbar, the handsome but rather stern naval hero who arrived uninvited a couple of days earlier in search of his sister, who is another of the earl’s guests. Dunbar is furious – both at himself and with Julia – believing it to have been her intention to trap him into marriage all along. Nevertheless, he is too much the gentleman to blacken the name of a lady, regardless of her actions, and makes it clear that he intends to do the right thing.
When the couple confronts Julia’s father and make him aware of what has happened, Alec refuses to allow Julia to take the blame, insisting instead that they are very taken with each other and got carried away. Given the strength of his appalled reaction to her, Julia is surprised at Alec’s words, yet later, finds herself standing up for him when the earl all but accuses him of being a fortune hunter. In a way, this sets the tone for their relationship in the early stages, with each of them being alternately surprised by a kindness on the part of the other, only to be infuriated by a careless action or comment shortly afterwards.
One of the things that works best about the story is the way in which Julia is slowly revealed not to be at all the sort of pampered brat she at first appears. As we – and Alec – come to know her better, she is shown to be a good-hearted and dependable young woman who puts others before herself, often under trying circumstances. Her family is dysfunctional, to say the least – her older brothers are unhappily married and not discreet about their various extra-marital affairs, her father loves her, but is constantly judging her against her mother’s memory, her aunts are somewhat eccentric and all of them have, for years, been so wrapped up in their own battles, that none of them has had much time or affection to spare for Julia. To make matters worse, she discovers that the woman she had regarded as her best friend has betrayed her and had never been a true friend. Yet through it all, Julia continues to serve as hostess, making sure the house runs like clockwork and that everyone is comfortable, all while trying to adjust to marriage to a man she hardly knows and who, at times, seems to dislike her intensely.
Alec is a handsome, commanding hero, but he’s also quick to judge and isn’t exactly tactful when it comes to his new wife. Believing she deliberately entrapped him makes him prone to think the worst of her at times; but at others, he is able to look beyond the poised, cool exterior she affects to see the vulnerable, insecure woman underneath. Both characters have to come to see themselves and those around them differently, and it’s this aspect of the story I enjoyed the most; watching Alec and Julia come to a greater understanding of themselves and each other in spite of the somewhat inauspicious beginning to their relationship.
The ending is a little drawn-out and somewhat silly, but it does have some interesting insights to offer on Julia’s character and provides Alec with the chance to undertake a very public grovelling session.
Those few criticisms aside, I really enjoyed The Captain’s Christmas Bride. Alec and Julia are engaging, imperfect characters whose explosive chemistry in the bedroom is another of the book’s plus points. Ms Burrows writes with a great deal of flair and emotional insight, and while the book is a quick read, it’s a satisfying one.