Ralph Stockwood prides himself on being a leader, but when he convinced his friends to fight in the Napoleonic Wars, he never envisioned being the sole survivor. Racked with guilt over their deaths, Ralph must move on…and find a wife so as to secure an heir to his family’s title and fortune.
Since her Seasons in London ended in disaster, Chloe Muirhead is resigned to spinsterhood. Driven by the need to escape her family, she takes refuge at the home of her mother’s godmother, where she meets Ralph. He needs a wife. She wants a husband. So Chloe makes an outrageous suggestion: Strike a bargain and get married. One condition: Ralph has to promise that he will never take her back to London. But circumstances change. And to Ralph, it was only a promise.
Publisher and Release Date: Signet, 9th June 2015
Time and Setting: 1820s England
Heat Level: 1.5
Genre: Historical Romance
Reviewer Rating: 4.5 stars
Review by Caz
All the books in Mary Balogh’s Survivor’s Club series take as their central protagonist a character who has been seriously injured by war. Sometimes these are physical injuries, as with Sir Benedict Harper (of The Escape), who lost the use of his legs, and sometimes they are mental, as with Flavian Ponsonby (hero of the previous book – and my favourite of the series so far – Only Enchanting). In each case, the author has approached her characters’ injuries and disabilities sensitively and un-sentimentally, showing how difficult it has been for each of them to regain anything resembling a normal life following their terrible experiences, and has matched each of them so far with a heroine who has her own, though different, dragons to slay.
Ralph Stockwood is Earl ofBerwick and heir to his grandfather, the Duke of Worthingham. The duke is ailing, and Ralph knows that it is past time for him to his duty – he must marry and produce a son as soon as possible so as to ensure the succession. He won’t shirk his duty, but is far from overjoyed at the prospect of having to select a wife from the year’s crop of simpering misses just out of the schoolroom. He returned from war a very different man to the outgoing, optimistic one who went off, accompanied by his closest friends, to fight for king and country; and even though he has returned to society following the three years he spent convalescing at Penderris Hall with his fellow Survivors, he is plagued by an inner darkness and a feeling of emptiness that makes him reluctant to condemn any young woman to a life with him.
Chloe Muirhead is the grand-daughter of the duchess’s dearest friend, and is on an indefinite visit to Manville Court. Her life has been tainted by scandal, none of it of her making. Her first season had to be delayed due to mourning so she did not make her début until she was twenty-one, making her several years older than that year’s crop of eager, marriageable young misses. She nonetheless garnered an offer of marriage, but her fiancé cried off when her younger sister ran off with a married man, by whom she was expecting a child. Some years later, Chloe returned to society, only to find herself “cut” by the ton, because of speculation about her parentage.
Humiliated once more, Chloe fled London, her hopes of marriage and children dashed – but she needed some breathing space away from home, hence her stay with the duke and duchess.
She overhears a discussion between Ralph and his grandmother in which they discuss his need for a wife, and Chloe thinks that perhaps she has a solution to both their problems. Even though she finds Ralph somewhat forbidding, she suggests to him that they marry. She wants to be married and he needs to be married – she will give him an heir, and he will give her a home and a comfortable life. But love, romance and affection are most definitely NOT on the table as far as Ralph is concerned, he does not wish Chloe to know him or he to know her. Chloe’s main wish is to live the rest of her life well away from the glare of London society, and as Ralph is as keen to do that as she is, she is content with what is on offer.
The Marriage of Convenience is probably my favourite trope in historical romance, so the premise of this story naturally appealed to me very much. I enjoyed watching Ralph and Chloe coming to the gradual realisation that it is not feasible – or desirable – to live a life devoid of companionship at the very least. Chloe senses the emptiness inside Ralph, but because of their bargain, doesn’t ask him about it, no matter that she knows it’s eating away at him. He keeps reminding her that he’s a shell of a man with nothing to offer – he has been so badly traumatised by the things he experienced during the war that he has walled off his emotions and wishes never to feel again. There are times, I admit, when Ralph is difficult to like because of the way he treats Chloe and deliberately shuts her out, sometimes quite cruelly. There are reasons for this, of course, but it is still difficult to read.
Chloe is an engaging heroine, and I liked her rather fatalistic approach to life. None of the problems she has encountered are her fault, and even though she is more or less resigned to an uneventful life, she puts on a brave face and just gets on with it. Her proposal to Ralph takes a lot of courage, as do many of the things she does later in the book, and if I have a niggle, it’s that it takes her a bit too long to protest her husband’s sometimes callous treatment of her in the early stages of their marriage.
Ralph’s emotional scars run deep and his journey back to the land of the living is a difficult one. Chloe has fears of her own to face, too, but face them she does, with Ralph’s help and support. His growing realisation that he can’t maintain his emotional distance from Chloe, and the way in which she gradually worms her way under his skin and into his heart are very well-portrayed and often very poignant.
Ralph and Chloe are well-drawn, sympathetic characters, and one of their strengths as a couple is that, despite a rocky start, they actually TALK to each other and behave like responsible adults. There is an equally strong secondary cast, in particular Ralph’s grandparents and Chloe’s brother, Graham, and a number of the other Survivors make cameo appearances. In spite of the very small reservations I’ve mentioned, Only a Promise is a terrific read, and certainly a worthy addition to this enjoyable series.