For the first time since the death of his wife, the Duke of Stanbrook is considering remarrying and finally embracing happiness for himself. With that thought comes the treasured image of a woman he met briefly a year ago and never saw again.
Dora Debbins relinquished all hope to marry when a family scandal left her in charge of her younger sister. Earning a modest living as a music teacher, she’s left with only an unfulfilled dream. Then one afternoon, an unexpected visitor makes it come true.
For both George and Dora that brief first encounter was as fleeting as it was unforgettable. Now is the time for a second chance. And while even true love comes with a risk, who are two dreamers to argue with destiny?
Publisher and Release Date: Signet, May 2016
Time and Setting: 1820s, London and Cornwall, England
Genre: Historical Romance
Heat Level: 2
Reviewer Rating: 5 stars
Review by Lady Wesley
Dora Debbins, music teacher to the children of Inglebrook in Gloucestershire enjoyed her life, but she still missed her younger sister Agnes, who had lived with Dora for a year after she was widowed. Agnes has recently married and moved away; both she and her husband had encouraged Dora to live with them, but Dora preferred feeling useful. Sometimes her mind wanders back to a party at nearby Middlebury Park, where Dora had played the harp and pianoforte after dinner. The Duke of Stanbrook had been especially kind to her, and Dora had felt more alive than ever in her entire life. But, as a thirty-nine-year-old spinster, Dora allowed herself to entertain no romantic notions.
Meanwhile, at Stanbrook House in London, George Crabbe waved farewell to his house guests and settled into his comfortable library chair, reflecting how nice it was to know that he could do anything, or nothing, with his time. During the past two years, he had traveled hither and yon attending the weddings of all six of his closest friends, all members of the Survivors’ Club. Now the weddings are over, and George finally admits to himself that he is lonely. He wants companionship, and wonders whether Dora Debbins might be the right woman for him.
Imagine Dora’s shock when George appears unexpectedly in her parlor, announces that he has just arrived from London, and asks, “I wondered, Miss Debbins, if you might do me the great honor of marrying me.”
Thus begins the seventh and final book in Mary Balogh’s Survivors’ Club series. The survivors – five men and one woman – each suffered traumatic injuries in the wars against Napoleon, and the Duke of Stanbrook, whose son had died in battle, opened his estate in Cornwall as a convalescent home. Out of more than two dozen officers who lived there, six had stayed for some three years, and the bond that developed between them was stronger perhaps than those of family. Each of the six previous books focused on one survivor’s struggles, their sometimes incomplete recovery, and their path to happiness in marriage. Although these are romances, Mary Balogh does not sugar-coat the realities of war and its aftermath. For this, she is to be commended, although sometimes it makes for uncomfortable reading.
Only Beloved is quite different from the other books, however. George was not a soldier injured in war. His only child was killed in battle, and shortly thereafter, his wife took her own life. Opening his home to those in need of longer-term care was one way of assuaging his grief. He has appeared in all six books, as a kind of loving father-figure to the others, but we know very little about him, really. And contrary to the standard romance plot, this books begins with the proposal and the wedding, and only afterwards tells the story of George and Dora truly falling in love.
This is a quiet book. Some readers may find the first half or so a bit slow, but I did not, probably because George and Dora are so well-written and their relationship so beautifully and gradually revealed. As an, *ahem*, older reader, I reveled in the notion that this mature couple could find romance and even passion as they experience the ordinary events of everyday life. But, if you’re looking for adventure, this book is not for you. There is no Great Villain or Big Secret shadowing their lives.
There are, however, a villain and some secrets – things which complicate but do not overshadow George and Dora’s lives. It becomes apparent to Dora that George, the deeply compassionate man who took on everyone else’s burdens, has never had anyone with whom to share his. George has suffered tremendously, but he is reticent to share his experience with anyone until his fear of losing Dora convincers him to open up. There is a bit of a mystery here, which is rather well done; I did not anticipate the outcome.
Dora has conflicted feelings about her parents. Her life was almost ruined when her father publicly accused her mother of infidelity. After her mother fled with her supposed lover, her parents divorced, and Dora gave up her hopes for a Season in London to stay home and raise Agnes. The two women have never forgiven their mother and also have some degree of resentment toward their rather distant father for his imprudent public accusation. When Dora learns that her mother, happily remarried for some twenty years, lives in London, that Agnes’ husband has been to see her, and that Agnes refuses do likewise, she is torn. She benefits from George’s huge talent for compassion and understanding, as he supports her through her decision whether to re-establish a relationship with her mother.
George and Dora are expertly drawn. Dora is intelligent, modest, and sensible. Becoming a duchess does not make her giddy (as I believe it would me). Rank is not her purpose in marrying George, and she blossoms under his love and attention. George is downright adorable. His thoughtfulness – buying a harp for Dora, bringing her old piano to Penderris, encouraging her to play and sing for him – made me fall a little bit in love with him myself. They are the focus of the plot, but there are several vivid secondary characters. I was especially touched by the story of Dora’s mother and her husband and repelled by the gossipy Mrs. Parkinson.
I adored the story, and it was great fun to visit with all of the survivors, their spouses, and their growing families. The author spends a good deal of space on the backstory of the Survivors’ Club, which I found distracting. While technically this could be read as a standalone, I think that something would be lost from not knowing more about the Survivors.
Mary Balogh has been writing for more than thirty years, with seventy novels and almost thirty novellas to her credit. I believe that the Survivors’ Club series is her crowning achievement; all seven books are excellent stories of damaged people struggling to achieve some degree of recovery and happiness despite their injuries. I urge you to read them all.