|When I was a young reader, many, many years – nay decades – ago, romances between very young heroines and quite mature heroes were quite prominent and quite popular. I well remember seventeen year old Leonie and the forty year old Duke of Avon; or the very young Arabella and the thirty-five year old Mr. Beaumaris; or…well, I could go on. Now granted the above two pairs were in early Heyers, but the great Georgette was not alone in the disparate ages between her lovers. There are other examples too numerous to mention. And I just loved those stories. (Might this say something about the perceived immaturity of my male peers or does it reflect my own “daddy issues”? Who can say!)
But in the contemporary romance such major age disparities are so rare as to be almost unheard of. Thus it is daring of Carla Kelly to create a thirty-six year old hero and an eighteen year old heroine. And it is a measure of her talent that the reader comes to believe in the love story of Hugh Philippe Junot, Lieutenant Colonel in the Royal Marines and Polly Brandon.
Polly Brandon is the youngest of the three Brandon sisters, illegitimate daughters of a disreputable nobleman. But unlike her older sisters, Polly was spared her father’s efforts to use her for his financial benefit. Partly this is because her father died, but mainly it is because she was not viewed as attractive enough to serve his interests. Quiet, studious Polly was no beauty like her sisters and what’s more, she wears spectacles!
As the story opens, Polly is on her way to visit with her sister, Laura, in Oporto, Portugal. Laura had married a naval surgeon, Philemon Brittles and works with him at an advance staging hospital for casualties before they are sent back to England. Since leaving the genteel academy where she was educated, Polly has lived with her sister Nana, the wife of a naval captain. But she wants to do more for the war and hence, she finds herself on the HMS Perseverance in the choppy English Channel.
Also on board is Hugh Junot (pronounced Jennet; their roots may be French, but the family is now completely Scots), the above-mentioned Royal Marine. Colonel Junot is on a mission to determine how the Marines can become more effective in the ongoing Peninsular War. Hugh has been serving his country all over the world for twenty years. He is committed to his career but is beginning to long for hearth and home. He notices sweet Polly almost at once, but reckons that her youth and sweetness are not for him. But when Polly becomes desperately ill with seasickness, it is Hugh who comes to her rescue. Thus, an unlikely bond is formed between the Royal Marine and a young lady who has been raised to think she is both unattractive and ineligible.
When the Perseverance lands at Oporto, Hugh and Polly separate to their different tasks, Hugh to investigate the role of the Marines and Polly to immerse herself in the needs of the victims of this horrible war (not that all wars are not horrible.) In particular, Polly works with the numerous young women in the town who have been double sufferers, both of French rapes and the honor culture that blames the victims. Polly’s youth and empathy make her a valuable support to those in such pain. One of her responsibilities is to accompany her colleague, Sister Maria Magdelena, upriver to rescue other young women in need. One day, as the boat is about to cast off, Polly looks up and sees Colonel Junot on the quay. His ship has cast into Oporto for the day. When he discovers her mission, a worried Hugh makes a snap decision to accompany the mission up river. This proves to be a fateful choice.
It is a rare historical romance author who manages to bring home the realities of early 19th century warfare in Portugal and Spain. (I am reminded of Roberta Gellis’ Fortune’s Bride, one of my favorites and greatly underappreciated.) It is even a greater challenge to create a compelling romance in such dire circumstances. But in facing unimaginable dangers, Hugh and Polly build their tentative attraction into something powerful and enduring.
Carla Kelly has often used military men as her heroes. She has a real empathy for those who are willing to fight in distant places to preserve the independence of their country and to allow those flighty members of the ton to enjoy the balls and soirees and Venetian breakfasts that figure so prominently in most Regency romance novels. Hugh Junot is a worthy addition to Kelly’s roster of military heroes. He is brave and devoted, but has retained his humanity and wants nothing more than for the war to end. In Polly Brandon, Hugh has found a woman who is worthy of his devotion. She may be young, but she is not foolish. She is a mature beyond her years and she grows even more as the novel proceeds. This is a love story the reader can believe in.
Marrying the Royal Marine will have a place on my keeper shelves. But then, all of Carla Kelly’s novels reside there. As I have said before in a review of Kelly’s Harlequin Historicals, please go out and buy this book. We cannot afford to lose her singular voice.