Gwendoline, Lady Muir, has been a secondary character in some of Mary Balogh’s most beloved books. Her story has been one hotly anticipated by fans. It can be hard to deliver under that kind of pressure, but Mary Balogh shows herself to be up for such a daunting task. Not only was I delighted with Gwen’s story and pleased with her hero, my appetite for the other Survivor’s Club members books is now whipped to a fever pitch.
Gwen is never impulsive, and it is precisely because impulsiveness leads to the sort of situation she is in now. She received a letter from an old acquaintance, Mrs. Parkinson, who had lost her husband. Understanding all too well the feelings of loss, grief, exhaustion, and loneliness that accompany widowhood, Gwen accepted her offer to visit. However, Gwen’s dream of providing comfort and consolation is swallowed by her “friend’s” bitterness and jealousy. Desperate to leave the house, Gwen follows impulse once more and finds herself on a cold beach in Cornwall. The walking is hard and leads to disaster as Gwen’s damaged leg turns dangerously under her, resulting in a painful sprain.
It had been a silly joke. Hugo wanted a wife. Ralph had assured him that finding one was “quite simple”: Approach “the first reasonably personable woman you see, tell her that you are a lord and indecently wealthy to boot” and ask for her hand in marriage. Hugo assures his friends he will do just that come morning. But when morning arrives it brings the last sort of a female Hugo would wish to marry, a damsel in distress. A lovely lady who simply breathes class and wealth and introduces herself haughtily as Lady Muir. Hugo carries Gwen to help but is convinced she is not at all the woman destiny has in mind for him. Proud of his humble beginnings, he assures himself that Gwen is a pampered, proud, and persnickety aristocrat. But he wants her – desperately.
As Gwen recuperates at the home of George Crabbe, Duke of Stanford, she is able to disabuse Hugo (somewhat) of that notion. The week passes slowly as she regains her ability to walk and becomes slowly closer to Hugo. The two are aware that neither is what the other is looking for in a relationship. The strong mutual attraction they feel – as well as the budding camaraderie – has them crossing lines they would normally leave well enough alone. When Neville arrives to escort Gwen home to finish her recuperation, she assures herself she is relieved and happy. Hugo assures himself of the same as he carries her out to the waiting coach. Yet mere weeks later he finds himself looking for her once more. There is a need in his life that only Gwen can fulfill. But will she be willing?
Fans of Balogh’s books will find themselves wading in very familiar waters. Reading this novel I couldn’t help thinking it was the A Christmas Bride with elements of A Precious Jewel and A Christmas Promise. Hugo reminded me very much of Ellie from Christmas Promise – like her he is proud of his roots. While he has become a gentleman in name because of his heroism during the war, he associates himself far more with the merchant class in which he was born. Like her, he is also a bit combative when initially presented with members of the nobility. Like Edgar from Christmas Bride he is reluctant to wed outside his class but is willing to do so to elevate his connections for his family. Like Gerald Stapleton from A Precious Jewel, he has an interesting and complicated relationship with his step-mother. Hugo has some unique traits – he is far more blunt than any of these other characters, he is an odd mix of businessman and weekend farmer, and he has issues from the war that none of the others displayed. I mention the similarities because I know many readers are very familiar with Ms. Balogh’s work and would see these connections for themselves. Might as well get them out in the open.
Gwen is frankly fabulous. I love the fact that she stayed exactly who she has been in the last several books in which she appeared. So often authors feel a need to change a beloved character in order to make them work in a romance. Here, the romance is given to exactly the person we have come to admire and care for. She is kind, well mannered, wise, and compassionate. She has a quiet charm which draws people to her but doesn’t make her the belle of the ball. I really liked how she was with everyone – that perfect British tact which we would expect of a true lady coupled with an added warmth. It is this that slowly erodes Hugo’s initial hostility toward her. She also wasn’t stagnant – after spending quite some time healing from the death of her husband she is now considering what more she wants from life. She has hesitantly gotten back in touch with the more sensual side of herself and realized that she wants to have a sex life once more. During the relatively short time she is with Hugo initially, the two grow increasingly physical in their relationship and Gwen feels comfortable and happy with the fact.
Somehow, the blunt Hugo is the perfect foil for gracious Gwen. It is not that he serves as a protector – she can do that quite well for herself. She is kind – not a doormat. It is that his outspoken nature compels her to really open up as well. Gwen shares with him in ways she hasn’t shared with even her close knit family. He helps her to drain some nasty emotional wounds and be comfortable with just being herself. For her part, Gwen helps Hugo accept all aspects of himself as a part of him. He is conflicted between his new title and social responsibilities, his fellow members of the Survivor’s Club (all gentry), and the merchant class from which he comes. He has trouble with peacetime Hugo versus war time Hugo, and the past that part of him faced. Gwen helps him to see how all the pieces are actually part of his whole. I also appreciated how careful the two were to introduce each other to family and the class distinction between their two worlds. Each had the other spend time in their “world” to ensure that their partner could truly accept that facet of them.
Both of them are somber individuals, but I also really appreciated the subtle humor they shared. Others might not laugh at their in jokes but it was enough that they found a bit of fun in each other. I can’t emphasize enough how much I enjoyed the romance here. This was a love story between adults. It wasn’t just racing hormones leading to lust regarded as love; these two really got each other.
For those dying to know, the answer is yes. Neville and Lilly, Lauren, and even Wulfric make appearances. They were handled well and I thoroughly enjoyed them.
The book’s only flaw was that at the end I felt that I needed more. With all that had been dealt with in the novel there were still scenes I felt I was missing. More scenes with Hugo that involved Neville. More scenes that involved the other members of the Survivor’s Club. For all that it was brilliantly done I did not get the feeling that Hugo’s family was formative for him. That meant that the many pages dealing with them were less indicative of who Hugo was and more simply pleasant reading. Constance, his step sister, and his stepmother Fiona were responsibilities he was loving and indulgent towards. But he didn’t confide in them nor any of his other relatives. The scenes that were missing were those that involved Hugo connecting with the people he would turn to in times of trouble. Instead we saw the people he sheltered from all but the fairest weather. These scenes were missing a bit for Gwen too, but since we have her history we know who those ladies are. The fact that Gwen and Hugo connected so well together made up for this to an extent but I just felt I needed more of each of them as an individual. Especially Hugo.
But that is a quibble, and in the end I would strongly recommend this novel to any lover of historical romance or really romance in general. It is a lovely tale about two people finding they are best when they face the world together. I absolutely loved it and think you will as well.