Lord Dragoner’s Wife by Lynn Kerstan

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Love cannot be bought or bartered, and a marriage may be built on the finest of threads.
Delilah, the smart and likable daughter of an ambitious merchant, fell in love with Charles Everett from afar. While she married for love, Charles only married her to salvage his aristocratic family’s disreputable accounts. Believing she had no more interest in a real marriage than he did, he abandoned her after their wedding night to seek honor in the war against Napoleon.

Now, six years later, he returns, vested as Lord Dragoner but embroiled in secrets and controversy, to insist she free herself by divorce. Delilah has never stopped hoping he would one day return to her, the beautiful man with pain blazing in his eyes. She longs for them to build a happy family, like the one she grew up with, and she’ll do whatever it takes to win him over.

Rating: B

At the age of twenty-two, Charles Everett, heir to the Earl of Dragoner was sold into marriage with the daughter of a wealthy merchant in order to repair the family finances. He didn’t want the marriage, but had no choice in the matter, knowing how desperately his father needed the cash. On the morning of his wedding, he discovered that his parents had absconded with the money and left him to it – so he got rollicking drunk, got married, bedded his bride and abandoned her the following morning, leaving England in order to purchase a commission in the army. He has not returned since, serving on the peninsula in various capacities and building rather an unsavoury reputation. Rumour has it that he is a coward and a libertine; and when he is publicly disgraced – by the Duke of Wellington, no less – he finds he has no alternative but to return to British shores.

His wife, Delilah, has carried a torch for him ever since she first laid eyes on him, but rather than moping dejectedly at his desertion, she has spent his absence shepherding his finances and turning her dowry into a substantial fortune. She’s lived with the knowledge of his infidelity, the rumours about his reputation and his disgrace, and yet she can’t help hoping and believing that the rumours will prove to be untrue. All she’s ever had of him are hopes – hopes that he will return, hopes that he will fall in love with her – but she knows that isn’t the reason he’s coming to see her after their long separation. He wants his freedom – and to give her hers – and has come to her so that they can start divorce proceedings. But he has been living in France where divorce is easier and has reckoned without the harsher English laws which make it very difficult for a wife to divorce her husband as he has planned. Instead, he will have to divorce her on grounds of adultery which will cause a great deal of scandal and unpleasantness for her. For himself, he doesn’t care but he is unwilling to subject Delilah to such indignities, so they agree instead to live separate lives.

But despite everything, Delilah still dares to hope and she makes one last request of him. She asks that they spend one year together as man and wife (telling him it’s up to him whether they sleep together or not) – and if, after that time, he still wants the separation, she will agree to it.

Dragoner knows this is a reasonable request and in the short time they have known each other, he has come to respect and admire his wife. He also finds her attractive and would have no qualms about taking her to bed – but she is not the reason for his reluctance.

It soon emerges that Dragoner believes himself to be absolutely the wrong choice for her – or for any woman. His earliest childhood memories are of being used as a decoy to divert his father’s creditors and he has spent almost his entire life being someone else, being whoever he needed to be in order to get his job done. The job, of course, being that of an undercover agent for the British army. He’s supremely good at what he does, but is also under no illusions that what he’s done is in any way heroic. With the war ended, he’s now a man without a purpose and with a reputation so black as to make him persona non grata in any good society.

Dragoner asks for time to consider Delilah’s proposal – and then returns to France with the intention of picking up his former life. The public hostility between him and Wellington was something they engineered between them to enable Wellington to plant his spy in the midst of society and ensure that Dragoner is regarded as a traitor and a good prospect for recruitment to any anti-British cause.

Charles has, however, reckoned without his wife’s ingenuity. He never said she couldn’t come to Paris – and so she does just that, proceeding to re-decorate his residence and make herself known in Parisian society. She also discovers the truth about her husband’s activities, despite his best efforts to get her to leave and return to England.

Lord Dragoner’s Wife is a fairly short, but very engaging read and I was hooked from the first page. Delilah is a wonderful character – intelligent, endearing and determined without being sharp or bossy; and Charles is a man in need of rescuing from his demons and from his past. He’s a complex character who believes himself to be unworthy of love or affection, which makes sense given the fact that his parents continually used him for their own ends and finally abandoned him when they had no further use for him. So he pushes away anyone who shows signs of becoming attached to him by presenting the worst of himself – smug, flippant and unpleasant – until they leave him alone. Even Delilah – tenacious, intuitive Delilah – is almost fooled by his devil-may-care insouciance – but fortunately for Charles, she puts her tenacity to use in his favour.

While there is certainly an element of adventure and derring-do in the novel, it’s the relationship between Dragoner and Delilah that drives the story. His growing affection and her quiet devotion are beautifully written, and while the pair never progress beyond a kiss on the page, Ms Kerstan conveys a real depth of emotion and understanding between them that leaves us in no doubt as to their future happiness.

With thanks to Belle Books and NetGalley for the review copy.

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