Only a Promise
A Survivors’ Club Novel
By Mary Balogh
Mass Market Paperback
Penguin Random House/Signet Jun 09, 2015
E-Galley provided by publisher for review. No remuneration was exchanged and all opinions presented herein are my own except as noted.
This is Book 5 of the Survivors’ Club series—after The Proposal (Hugo’s story), >The Arrangement (Vincent’s), >The Escape (Ben’s), and >Only Enchanting (Flavian’s). This is Ralph Stockwood, Earl of Berwick’s story—and Chloe Muirhead’s.
Ralph had once spent three years at Penderris Hall in Cornwall, along with the other six members of the Survivors’ Club, recuperating from wounds sustained during the Napoleonic Wars. He was brought home from Portugal with terrible physical wounds that have left ugly scars, but worst of all, because most difficult to heal, he suffers from the guilt of having persuaded his three best friends to go to war with him only to face the horror of watching them die in the cavalry charge that almost killed him. Life must go on, however. He is heir to a dukedom, and his grandfather is ailing. Both his grandparents’ are urging him to marry and beget heirs, and Ralph loves them enough to recognize his responsibility to them and his position. Reluctantly he promises to choose a wife during the current social Season in London.
During two separate years Chloe Muirhead had been to London to participate in the social activities of the Season. Both times she had hoped to find a husband. On both occasions, however, terrible scandal sent her running home to the country. Now she is convinced that she can hold out no further hope of marriage and motherhood and happiness. And such was the second scandal that she no longer finds it possible to continue living at home with her father and sister. She has taken refuge at the home of her late mother’s elderly godmother—and Ralph’s grandmother.
When Chloe meets Ralph there, she is prepared to dislike him as she remembers that he had been unkind to her brother both when they were at school together and after Ralph was brought home, terribly wounded. When she realizes, however, that Ralph needs a wife but has little interest in going to London to choose one, she concocts a desperate scheme to satisfy her own desire for a husband and his urgent need for a wife. It seems a straightforward enough bargain that she suggests to Ralph. She asks only one favor of him: his promise that she need never again go to London. It is the one promise, however, that Ralph soon finds it impossible to keep.
Borne down by burdens from the past and betrayals in the present, Ralph and Chloe’s marriage seems doomed almost from the start. Only the one factor they did not consider as part of their bargain can offer them any chance for happiness…and that is love.
The Survivors’ Club: Six men and one woman, all wounded in the Napoleonic Wars, their friendship forged during their recovery at Penderris Hall in Cornwall. Now, for one of them, striking a most unusual bargain will change his life forever.…
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.
This story offered me a look into the mind of a hero that was unlike any I had read before. Unstintingly honest, brutal, contradictory and illogical feelings. I felt Ralph’s emotions, thought processes and rationalizations were honest and very real.
Chloe is important: brave, strong, honest and such, but I was enchanted by Ralph, for his struggle seemed larger than Chloe’s and his reasons for being such a mess seemed greater. And, it pointed to the reasons, perhaps, we abandoned many of the societal “niceties” of the nineteenth century.
For example if your sister runs off with a married man, YOU are ruined; shunned from polite society. And, if you are thus ruined and try to re-enter society at a later date, some people will have forgotten your earlier shame, but others will shun you because of a rumor about your parentage. Gossip is another theme in the story, that and War. I am not sure what is crueler — in war people are just outright trying to kill each other, with the Ton’s gossip you had no one to trust outside your family. Your bff will shun you forever because someone kissed your sister. And, the way women treat each other, Agh!!
I did like the nod to Jane Austen’s P & P baddies, Lydia and Wickham with Chloe’s sister and her husband. Chloe’s sister continues to behave like Lydia throughout the book.
In short, the Ton may have had some reasons for behaving as they did but by and large the rules and norms were asinine.
I also thought the majority of the “marital relations” between Ralph and Chloe were more realistic than what I often read. There are no fireworks, universes coming apart, etc. Just sex, some one sided and some not so much. And, the interactions between the couple felt very real as well. Both of them screw up a lot.
Off the novels in this series I have read this is my favorite. I liked the relationship between the Survivors’ Club characters; especially Hugo, the man who started the convalescing hospital where the members met, and Ralph. It was solid, good and real.
I also liked how, using Chloe’s example, Ralph faces his fears, imagined culpability and flaws over and over again. In return, he gives her the social position to face her own.
I have read three or four of these now, and the can stand alone, but having read more than this one first, I think offers a richer experience with less to understand. I highly recommend the story and series.