Major Tom Bartlett is shocked to discover the angel who nursed his battle wounds is darling of the ton Lady Sarah Latymor. One taste of her threatens both her impeccable reputation and his career!
An honorable man would ask for her hand, but Bartlett is considered an unrepentant rake by polite society; sweet Sarah would be spurned as his mistress and even as his wife. He demands she leave, but Sarah is just as determined to stay by his side—and in his bed!
This is the second book in a trilogy of stories by different authors that are collectively entitled Brides of Waterloo, written to mark the two hundredth anniversary of that momentous battle.
I read the first book, Sarah Mallory’s A Lady for Lord Randall recently, and enjoyed it, so was eagerly anticipating this instalment, in which the heroine is Lady Sarah Latymor, sister to Justin Latymor, the titular Lord Randall of book one.
Towards the end of that book, Randall and his crack team of riflemen, known throughout the army as “Randall’s Rogues” because its members are the “raff and scaff of the military gathered into one troop”, are plunged into the thick of the fighting. During the onslaught, Sarah’s twin brother, Gideon, is killed and after the battle, she discovers Justin is Missing in Action. Devastated by the loss of her twin and possibly of her eldest brother, too, Sarah insists on joining the search for Justin, accompanied by Mary Endacott, the young schoolmistress with whom Justin is in love.
When Sarah is separated from the search-party, she stumbles across a badly wounded officer whose uniform indicates he must be part of her brother’s regiment. She defends him from a couple of French peasants who are intent upon murder, and with the help of two of his men, manages to convey him back to Brussels. She recalls the last time she’d seen Major Thomas Bartlett, tall and wickedly handsome, a man whose reputation with the ladies made it inconceivable that a respectable young woman like Sarah could ever have anything to do with him. But war makes for strange bedfellows, so to speak, and Sarah does the previously unthinkable. Instead of consigning the major to the local military hospital, where it is likely he will be viewed as too close to death to bother with, she is persuaded by his men to take him back to her rooms and nurse him herself.
In fact, she was going to have to breach practically every rule by which she’d lived. She’d always taken such pains to keep her reputation spotless that she’d never been without a chaperon, not even when visiting the ladies’ retiring room at a ball. She could scarcely believe she’d just encouraged two hardened criminals to install the regiment’s most notorious rake in her bedroom.
Sarah is simultaneously amazed at herself and terrified. Not only is she going to jepoardise her reputation, but looking after a seriously injured man is a huge responsibility, and not one she feels adequately prepared to cope with.
All her life, she’s struggled with feelings of inadequacy; she’s not beautiful enough, not clever enough, not resourceful enough, not brave enough. She knows what everyone thinks of her, that she’s a “spoiled, empty-headed society miss”, whose thoughtlessness causes problems for others to solve. Yet Ms Burrows shows us over and again that despite what she thinks, Sarah is not those things, and gives us enough backstory to explain how she came to those conclusions. And like Sarah, Tom Bartlett is a man with little self-esteem; his father was a bankrupt who committed suicide and left his son to the care of relatives who mistreated him; and he has grown up feeling as though he is worthless.
The thing I most enjoyed about the book is something for which others have criticised it; namely that it is principally a “two-hander” that takes place in one room. Personally, I think that is the ideal setting for two people who don’t know each other to spend time together getting to know each other and falling in love – and that’s exactly what happens. Sarah gains confidence as she begins to see that Tom is improving in her care, and he finds that having someone around who thinks the best of him rather than the worst, enables him to see himself more clearly and perhaps realise that he isn’t as black as he’s been painted. The part that doesn’t quite ring true, and why I haven’t graded the book more highly, is in Tom’s persistence in the belief that he isn’t worthy of Sarah, and her insistence that she doesn’t want to get married, even after they’ve slept together. The latter is always something I find problematic in historicals, given the importance placed on virginity and the stigma attached to unwed mothers and their children.
Apart from those things though, A Mistress for Major Bartlett is an enjoyable, well-told story, in which the author has made excellent use of her historical backdrop. So many books set at this period reference Waterloo, but few of them take the reader there or use it as more than a convenient reference point. Here, the descriptions of the aftermath of battle at the beginning of the book are vividly powerful, putting the reader firmly on those blood-soaked fields of Belgium. Both protagonists are well-rounded characters and the slow-burn romance between them is very nicely done. It’s an enjoyable, quick read, and one I’d certainly recommend to anyone who likes their historical romance to be sprinkled liberally with actual history!