Miss Bates doesn’t read as much histrom as she used to, but it is her first romance-reading love. A new-to-her-author, Marguerite Kaye, is someone she’s been curious about since Kaye’s sheikh books were published by Harlequin, Innocent In the Sheikh’s Harem especially looked intriguing. As Miss B’s leery of sheikhs, she took a chance on her first Kaye read in the Regency romance The Soldier’s Dark Secret. It contains some of Miss Bates’ favourite romance conventions: hero and heroine solve a mystery; multiple locations, including continental ones; and, the plot is centred on working together to overcome instead of bickering to make it to the bedroom. Kaye’s protagonists don’t squabble, they converse in heated, or humorous tones … and still manage to be sexy as heck.
Waterloo veteran, former Lieutenant-Colonel Jack Trestain struggles with PTSD at his brother’s, Sir Charles’, estate. Enter Parisian heroine Celeste Marmion, commissioned by Charles to paint Trestain Manor’s grounds before his wife’s, Eleanor’s, planned renovations begin. Celeste, however, has another reason for being in England: she seeks the truth of her mother’s mysterious death, “to find some answers and close an unhappy chapter in her life.”
Kaye’s opening is evidence why Miss Bates loves third-person romance narration: the control and freedom to show multiple perspectives. It finds Celeste and Jack awake in the wee hours, pondering their respective quandaries: Jack unable to return to sleep after a nightmare about the killing of innocent Spanish villagers by British troops in pursuit of pesky French guerilla-type actions; and, Celeste, restlessly thinking about her mother’s letter. Separately, they leave the manor to wander the estate. We, the readers, anticipate their early-morning encounter. Jack plunges into the lake and Celeste hides behind a bush to watch his beautiful, naked bod “scythe” through the water (a stunning use of the verb in Miss B’s estimation). Later, when they meet at breakfast, the innocent Sir Charles and Lady Eleanor are ignorant of the nuances of Jack and Celeste’s exchange: ” ‘ … did you see anything of interest during your exploration?’ ‘ … The lake has some interesting views.’ ” The reader revels in the delicious irony and banter and the tone is set for our hero and heroine’s relationship. She stands up to him and gives as good as he. He treats her like a very smart, challenging equal. It was as refreshing as Jack’s morning swim.
Despite this light opening, Jack’s dawn nightmare and Celeste’s letter-musings point to the romance’s “darkness.” Jack and Celeste’s story is about coming to terms with the past as a way of coming to a new way of answering, “Who am I? How have I been altered by past events ?” They suffer from unresolved grief. Their responses to it are different, but equally painful. Jack’s trauma is, at least on the surface, the more severe. The revelation of what happened in that Spanish village and Jack’s role in it, his own judgement and blame being the harshest, results in his present state: nightmares, sweats, triggers that bring on “mad” behaviour. Our contemporary understanding of Jack’s PTSD helps us understand his problem. Kaye’s portrayal of how people in Jack’s place and time would respond is what makes this aspect of the narrative compelling, how doubly confusing it would be for the sufferer, even one as level-headed and sanguine as Jack, and his family. Jack’s heroic status, for example, leaves his family in awe. He’s awful to them. They’re patient and loving, but puzzled by his behaviour and what to do about it.
Celeste is perfectly placed to be the person to confront Jack. She’s not cowed by him; as a bastard daughter half-English-half-French, she has enough “outsider” status to enable her to speak freely and openly with him. She’s sexually confident and isn’t afraid to admit her attraction to him. Yet, her response to her distant mother’s loss is the counterpoint to Jack’s grief: while Jack is at the mercy of his feelings, she is emotionally closed-off (not sexually, which is usually the norm in romance and Miss Bates loved this). Jack’s overwhelming feelings have left him questioning his soldier’s identity: “he was being forced to question everything that he’d loved and all that he’d stood for.” Contrariwise, Celeste refuses to mourn her mother’s untimely loss, her heart-steel her only defense for, as we learn, a cold upbringing (she was sent to school at ten, never to return for long to her mother): “Love was a subject she knew little about. On the topic of being loveless, however, she was something of an expert.” Jack and Celeste, the out-of-the-norm denizens of Sir Charles and Lady Eleanor’s estate, all the while resisting their attraction, make a decision: as Jack’s “atonement” for his actions in Spain (though he doesn’t readily share them with Celeste, at least not initially; they are his reasons for his offer), he will, thanks to his sleuthing skills as Wellington’s “code-breaker,” help Celeste discover the reasons for her mother’s death, with the clues left in the intriguing last letter.
A man who feels too much meets a woman who won’t feel anything. Together, they solve the mystery of her mother’s death and his tormented psyche. A man whose feelings are out of control and a mystery to him meets a women who maintains a rigid control over hers. How beautifully Kaye builds to the healing of their primary characterization: meeting, talking, sleuthing, traveling, and indulging their physical attraction, wonderful activities upon which to build a romance, lead to Jack and Celeste’s transformation. A transformation enacted by love. The journey to their transformation is built on hard, harsh truths, offering superb scenes such as:
” … I need answers, Jack. while you – you seem so very determined to avoid the questions.”
… “What is it that prevents you eating and sleeping? What is it that makes you stop in the middle of a conversation and – and disappear? As if you are no longer there. What is it that makes – ?”
“What is it that stops you from crying, Celeste? What is it that prevents you from admitting that your mother’s death affected you? Ask yourself those, more pertinent questions?”
Jack turned towards the door. Furious, uncaring that she had now achieved her objective, Celeste grabbed his arm. “You see, you are running away from the truth. Why won’t you talk about it?”
“Take your hands off me now.”
[Here comes the almighty heroine defiant-chin.] … Celeste tilted her chin and met his stormy eyes. “No.”
She half-expected him to strike her, but he made no such move. Instead, he pulled her towards him until they stood thigh to thigh, chest to chest. She was still angry, but her body responded immediately to the contact with a shiver of delight. “I’m not afraid of you,” Celeste said, tilting her head at him.
“I know,” Jack said, “It’s part of your appeal.”
What a beautifully rendered scene. Contemporary readers might fault it for anachronistic psychologizing, but Miss Bates thinks that historical fiction is as much about us as the past. (Kaye’s romance is well-researched, as her final author’s note indicates.) A breaking down of barriers, an openness such as a relationship earns that is being well-established. Then, the delight of humour and attraction: pain and pleasure in a hero and heroine who are emotional and intellectual equals, a lovely dance of confrontation, retreat, truth, and transcendence of circumstance. The narrative drags somewhat when Jack and Celeste are on the estate, but scenes such as this make up for it.
Celeste and Jack’s journey takes them to London, the Côte d’Azur, Paris, to find the answers Celeste needs to put her mother’s ghost to rest and embrace life. In understanding and forgiving her mother, Celeste heals her cold heart: “This new Celeste could be hurt. She cried far too much. She felt guilt and anger, but she also felt love for the first time in her life.” In helping Celeste, caring for her, loving her, Jack exorcises his demons, but he can’t do it alone. While he’s a knight and hero, it’s the heroine Celeste who must force his hand into choosing life, into exorcising his demons. It’s unfortunate Kaye had to resort to the old romance convention of I-don’t-deserve-her in keeping the lovers from fulfilling the HEA-promise: ” … he had no right to love her, and he was not fit to love her. But, dear heavens, how he loved her.” (When this happens, and it does too often, Miss Bates wants to shout, “You’re right, you nincompoop, you don’t deserve her, but that’s not the point. The point is she deserves you.”) Celeste softens, but never relinquishes her fighting spirit; how she brings that fighting spirit to save her hero is one of the pleasures of Kaye’s romance novel.
Miss Austen, who wrote her own wonderful Napoleonic War veteran, would’ve appreciated Kaye’s The Soldier’s Dark Secret and deemed it evidence of “a mind lively and at ease,” Emma.
Marguerite Kaye’s The Soldier’s Dark Secret was published by Harlequin Historical. It’s been available since February 17th, in “e” and paper, at your preferred vendors. Miss Bates is grateful to Harlequin for an e-ARC, via Netgalley.
While the Regency period is one of the romance genre’s most popular settings, not every Regency romance treats the subject of the difficult return of the Napoleonic-War soldier with Kaye’s knowledge and sensitivity. Of the Regency romances you’ve read, which ones stand out as outstanding in doing so?