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How many stories about soldiers returning home from war could there possibly be? Many, as Mary Balogh shows us in her latest Survivors Club series instalment. Ralph Stockwood is dead inside, and, for a while, he had wanted to die altogether. He went to war with three of his closest friends, and came home alone -- alive, but not free of the guilt and horror that comes with watching your friends die.
But Ralph needs to go on living, for the sake of his family, for the sake of his grandparents, and Ralph needs to get married soon, for the sake of the duchy of Worthingham. With his money, and title, it should be easy for Ralph to find a willing woman -- but Ralph knows it will be a miserable marriage, because he has nothing beyond his wealth and title to offer his future wife.
Chloe Muirhead is facing a bleak future -- she is dependent on the largesse of the eighty-two-year-old Duchess of Worthingham, who was her late mother's godmother. She can foresee the end of this situation, and knows there's nothing but difficulty beyond that. When she overhears a conversation between Ralph and her grandmother, Chloe brazenly offers herself to Ralph.
"...I have no illusions about marital happiness and would be quite willing to accept the marriage for what it would be. I would not interfere with your life. I would live mine in a way that would never publicly embarrass you or privately inconvenience you. If you were to agree to marry me, you would be saved from all the bother of making your choice among the many eligible young ladies in whom you have no interest whatsoever."
He found his voice at last.
"I have no interest in you, Miss Moorhead." It was brutal, but he felt savage -- and cold to the heart.
"Of course you do not," she said, looking unmoved, though a downward glance showed him that her knuckles had whitened against her shawl. "I would not expect or, or desire it. ..."
- pp. 33-34
So begins the marriage of convenience between Ralph and Chloe who are both willing to accept the parameters of this arrangement -- neither expects love or affection, and understand that sex is only for the sake of begetting an heir.
At the heart of Ralph's problem is decision making: he was born a leader, and had been the unspoken leader of his group of friends in school. He made a choice to purchase a commission, and convinced his three friends to go along -- and it resulted in tragedy. After living in a state of "suspended animation" for three years at Penderris, reality has forced its way back into Ralph's existence, and he's had to make the life-changing decision of marrying Chloe. It really wasn't the best of starts, with a marriage and Ralph's grandfather's death coming one after the other. I admired how steady Chloe was, and how calmly Ralph was handling his new responsibility, though I could imagine how panicked he must feel inside. The sense of responsibility continues to haunt Ralph, and now he has no choice but be the Duke of Worthingham, a position in which he is responsible for the lives and livelihood of many.
He would give anything in the world to bring back those days, to have the chance to take a different path into the future than the one he had actually taken. Sometimes he wondered what would have happened if he had not become so consumed with his grand idea of saving the world from tyranny or if his grandfather had put his foot down and refused to purchase his commission.
- p. 235
Chloe's problem isn't less complicated compared to Ralph. A disastrous second foray into London has had Chloe wondering about her birth, her mother, and whether Sir Kevin Muirhead is her real father. There's a part of Chloe that wants to know, but a greater part that wishes the problem would just disappear. It's the reason why Chloe sought out the Duchess of Worthingham, and applied for a position. Chloe was afraid to stay in the same house as her father. Chloe was afraid to confront the truth.
As I read through Only a Promise, I was amazed by how well Mary Balogh understands and expresses those very awkward aspects of ourselves. Balogh expressed so, so eloquently and so accurately all the painful, not-pretty thoughts that go through our minds on a daily basis. (There were some moments when I could completely relate to the situation and found myself thinking, "That's exactly how I feel."
I also loved the stark honesty in the dialogue and thoughts of the main characters -- these aren't your typical starry-eyed lovers. These are two world-weary people, who are entering a relationship with eyes wide open -- they know that there is no room for romance or dreams in their marriage. It's actually quite sad to realise just how bleak life becomes when one's ideals are quashed so thoroughly.
She thought briefly of the dreams of romance and love and marriage with which she had embarked upon her come-out Season at the advanced age of twenty-one. And the ghastly awakening that had killed those dreams. Reality was preferable.
- p. 69
* * *
It was not romantic love she felt for him, for there were no illusions. She did not expect moonlight and music and roses. She did not even expect a return of her feelings. There was no euphoria and never would be. She was not in love. There were no stars in her eyes. There was merely an acceptance of who he was, even the vast depths of him she did not know and perhaps never would.
- p. 277
It was actually amazing how Mary Balogh turned something so unromantic into something very romantic. And then turning a romance into a reflection on choices, consequences, and where we find the courage to face our worst fears.
"I almost welcomed the physical pain," he told her. "I lashed myself with it. I thought perhaps if it was bad enough I could atone with it."
"Atone?" She felt a chill crawl along her spine.
"For causing death," he said, "and untold suffering. For surviving."
- p. 159
Man vs. Himself. We often believe that the greatest threats to our persons are outside forces -- but, in truth, we are our own worst enemies, as Ralph and Chloe show us in Only a Promise. War is terrible, and the effects of war are often not physical ones. Ralph shows how painfully debilitating guilt and uncertainty is, and how difficult it is to overcome. Chloe's doubts are just as paralysing. What I liked about how Balogh handled their situation is that Ralph and Chloe were both surrounded by patient, supportive, and understanding people -- and they, themselves were patient, supportive, and understanding of one another. In that, Balogh shows us a different aspect of love. This love is like a well from which we draw courage from. This is a love that frees.
Only a Promise is a beautiful, moving, and honest story about love, loss, regret, and acceptance. It is Book 5 in Mary Balogh's The Survivors Club series. To find out more about Mary Balogh and her books, click below: