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Percy Hayes is the guy we all hate, but secretly want to be. By his own admission, he has the perfect life: his parents love him, his extended family dote on him, his governesses and tutors treated him well. He's in good health, in possession of a good fortune and good friends. He has just celebrated his thirtieth birthday, and everything in his life is blessedly uneventful.
"How can you be bored, Percy, when you admit to having everything?" Cyril asked, sounding downright rattled now. "It seems dashed ungrateful to me."
- Chapter 1
Imogen Hayes, Lady Barclay, is one of the survivors, and her inclusion in the Survivors Club is a mystery: what everyone knows is that she and her husband, the late Viscount Barclay, had been captured by the French, and she had witnessed his death. Imogen never gives any details: was he tortured? Was she raped? Did she and her husband suffer in captivity? There's always been a respectful silence and distance about her experience in the Peninsula.
These two have nothing in common, except a shared family name, and have never met, know only of the other's existence, and have never made the effort to get further acquainted, which was fine for both of them -- but, during his 30th birthday, Percival Hayes impulsively decides that it was time to visit Hardford Hall in Cornwall, the seat of the late Earl of Hardford, and Imogen's home for the past eight years.
It was aggravation at first sight, and that isn't a surprising reaction, considering how very, very different Percy and Imogen's lives and worlds are. Percy lived a very entitled and fortunate life -- he has never experienced any great tragedies. Imogen's life is defined by that one great, and terrible, and indelible tragedy. Percy walks the earth assured that nothing bad will happen to him. Imogen has already had something horrific happen to her. Of course Imogen resents Percy -- who wouldn't? And Percy has the unfortunate tendency to just blurt things out -- and say things no one dares to mention. Truly, there is nothing that redeems him in Imogen's eyes.
"Well, you do seem to have managed very well without Hardford Hall for the past two years," she said. "Now having come here on what seems to be some sort of whim, you have whipped yourself into a thoroughly bad temper. Why not go away and forget about our peculiar ways and be sweet-tempered again?"
- Chapter 4
And that's what makes this such a spellbinding love story -- how do we come to fall in love? How do we find that quality in the other that will pull us in and make us love them? Perhaps it was proximity, perhaps it was the location -- but love did find our hero and heroine. It's then that we realise how refreshing Percy's company is -- Imogen didn't have to pretend. Imogen didn't have to be polite. She allowed herself to be as unfiltered as Percy was -- and it was liberating. In the previous books of the Survivors Club series, I don't recall Imogen laughing. I vaguely remember polite smiles, but never laughter -- but, with audacious, rude, brash Percy, she laughed.
One would think Imogen would find comfort and love in one of the survivors, and I secretly hoped she and the Duke of Stanbrook would be the next (and final) pairing. I honestly thought they were perfect for each other: neighbours, with a shared experience, similar temperaments, etc. but Mary Balogh shows how intimately she knows her characters -- Imogen and George would have been a comfortable pairing, but what Imogen needed is someone who would challenge her out of her comfort zone.
What did her self-discipline hide? Why would she not let go of it? Mourning for eight years after a four-year marriage surely was excessive and self-absorbed. But he would not pry further. She would not tell him, and if she did, he had the feeling he really, really would not want to know.
What had happened to her when she was in captivity?
"If I wear marble as an armor," she said, breaking the strange silence, which had made him very aware of the elemental roar of the sea and the harsh, lonely cry of seagulls, "then you wear charm, Lord Hardford. A careless sort of charm. One wonders what lies behind it."
- Chapter 7
It's amazing how Mary Balogh has plotted out this series -- Imogen's book is already Book 6, and one would think we already know everything about the survivors, only to realise that there is so much more we do not know. There is such thoughtfulness and insight to her writing, but also an emotional intensity that just leaves you breathless.
A word of warning: don't read the excerpt for Only Beloved, the Duke of Stanbrook's book at the end, because you'll end up desperately, desperately wanting to read it -- then you realize it isn't coming out until May 2016. Agony!
Only a Kiss is Book 6 in Mary Balogh's amazing Survivor's Club series. To find out more about Mary Balogh and her books, click below: