Honor Before Heart (Emerald Belles #1) by Heather McCorkle

honor before heart

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Risking it all for love and valor . . .

When Corporal Sean MacBranian awakens after being injured in battle, he is sure the luck o’ the Irish has run out on him. Or that he’s died and gone to Heaven. There can be no other explanation for the blond-haired, blue-eyed angel standing before him. But his “angel” is a truehearted lass named Ashlinn, and she wears a nurse’s uniform. Her tender ministrations have brought him back from the brink of death—and have given him a new reason for living.

Ashlinn knows their parting is inevitable; her handsome hero must return to the 69th infantry of the Union army, and there are no guarantees of his safe return. With most of her family already destroyed by the war ravaging America, she is sure she cannot survive another loss. Yet she feels powerless against the draw of Sean’s strong and steady heart. Neither time nor distance nor the danger of battle seems to lessen their bond. But when their secret letters are intercepted, the devoted nurse’s love will face the ultimate test . . .

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Publisher and Release Date: Lyrical Press, March 2017

Time and Setting: Virginia, 1862
Genre: American Historical Romance (Civil War period)
Heat Level: 2
Review Rating: 3.5 stars

Review by Sara

Honor Before Heart is a sweetly romantic story set against the horrors of the American Civil War. McCorkle has definitely done her homework to show the brutality and personal cost faced by those who fought or lost someone in the war, although I wish that a bit more had been done to develop the characters past their basic outlines and turn them into a man and woman I could fully connect with.

Ashlinn O’Brian’s life has been changed forever by the war. Her three brothers heard the call to arms and enlisted in the Northern army. After two of them died from poorly treated wounds Ashlinn has been desperately searching the battlefields to find her youngest brother to hopefully save him from dying too. Ashlinn learned everything she could from her parents, a progressive doctor and a midwife, and her skills at keeping patients alive has made her more than a few enemies in the army camp hospital she works in. The latest battle on the shores of the James River has littered the ground with the bodies of dead Union and Confederate soldiers but Ashlinn’s prayers are answered that none of the men she finds are her brother. Before returning to the safety of the army camp Ashlinn’s attention is drawn to her faithful dog Cliste dragging something by the river bank. Getting closer to the water Ashlinn sees that the dog is trying to help a Union soldier who is unconscious but bleeding heavily from a gut wound. Knowing she’s the man’s only hope for survival, Ashlinn gets him into a makeshift shelter and treats his injuries using the supplies she always carries with her.

Corporal Sean MacBranian had escaped injury during the battle only to be caught by a Rebel soldier he found abusing a dog. He managed to kill the Southerner but not before the man got a few good hits on Sean’s person. The pain of his injuries knocks him out and for a moment Sean is certain he’s died when he wakes up to the beautiful face of a guardian angel leaning over him. Fortunately for Sean, his angel is a nurse who knows better ways to heal severe injuries than slicing and dicing up a patient. Ashlinn’s skills at suturing his wounds and keeping them clear of infection allow him to regain some of his strength so they can move out of enemy territory. As they travel Sean finds that Ashlinn is a well-spoken young woman but every so often he can hear a bit of a brogue seeping into her words. As an immigrant from Ireland, Sean is drawn to that little hint of Ashlinn’s own background as it’s something special they share.

Upon arriving safely at the army’s encampment Sean and Ashlinn try to keep their relationship on a cordial level since the war could separate them at any moment. Ashlinn has already learned the difficult lesson that caring for someone makes it agonizing to watch them march into an uncertain future on the battlefield. Sean, too, has seen many good men die and fears that his growing feelings for Ashlinn might become a distraction when his focus should be on the soldiers who serve under him. What neither of them counted on was how strong their bond had already become after Ashlinn saved his life and Sean protected her from the unwanted advances of the camp’s brutal doctor. They become inseparable after Sean is deployed into another battle and Ashlinn knows she would be lost if he were killed in action. Their new relationship is tested when Ashlinn discovers proof that her brother is alive but the circumstances of his disappearance may make her choose between her family and a future with Sean.

Honor Before Heart is tonally perfect for the period –  I could almost see everything happening to Ashlinn and Sean through a sepia-colored lens. One would think that the importance of social status would be something easily ignored while living in an army camp; however Ashlinn’s background as a wealthy Northerner is something that matters to Sean. He is aware that his own status as an Irish immigrant puts him much lower in class than her family even thought they, too, had immigrated generations earlier. There is also a black mark on his family’s name that Sean is hesitant to reveal since it was part of the reason he came to America to start a new life. Once he decides to pursue Ashlinn he adjusts their situation within the camp to always provide a chaperone or keep their meetings within the bounds of propriety. It makes their romance very sweet for most of their courting.

Unfortunately those sepia-colored lenses cannot hide the fact that Sean and Ashlinn never seem to grow or change much throughout the course of the story. Sean is a noble man who fights for the Union to bring freedom to the Southern slaves. Ashlinn is an intelligent and enlightened woman far ahead of her times when it comes to the care of the sick and injured in the field. Those two ideas are discussed between characters many times and serve as the major points of conflict when Ashlinn’s methods are challenged by the male doctors or Sean is captured by a Southern plantation owner. Long passages of the story paint vivid pictures of the brutal conditions Ashlinn is fighting against in the field hospitals, yet that’s all she seems to be fighting for. We don’t really know why her family joined the fight or what her thoughts are about the political side of things.

With that said, I enjoyed enough of Honor Before Heart to recommend it. The calm pace of the story creates the perfect conditions for a romance to thrive but the darkness of war is always present. It’s nice to believe that something as beautiful as love will survive past all of the hate.

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