Marrying the Royal Marine by Carla Kelly

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Illegitimate Polly Brandon has never felt like more than an ugly duckling. So she’s amazed when Hugh Philippe Junot pays her such close attention as they sail for Portugal.

Under ordinary circumstances she knows this distinguished lieutenant colonel of marines would never have looked at her, but having his protection for the journey is comforting–and something more that she’s afraid to give a name to. Should she trust what she sees in Hugh’s eyes–has she turned from an ugly duckling into a beautiful, desirable swan?

Rating: A

Polly Brandon, the youngest of three sisters, is eighteen (going on nineteen), and has always felt herself to be the ugly duckling of the family. At the beginning of the story, she has obtained passage on a British ship bound for Portugal, intending to work alongside her sister, Laura, and her husband, who is chief surgeon at a military hospital in Oporto.

Recently promoted Lieutenant Colonel Hugh Philippe d’Anvers Junot – a Scot, despite his French-sounding name – is wondering whether taking that promotion had been such a good idea after all, as it has left him landlocked. He is, he admits, dissatisfied both professionally and personally; in the case of the former, he misses life at sea, and in the case of the latter, he is lonely, and thinks that perhaps, at thirty-seven, he may have left it too late to find himself a wife and start a family.

Travelling to Portugal on a fact-finding mission, he is at somewhat of a loose end, until he realises that the ship’s other passenger, Polly, has not been seen for two days. He discovers her in the grips of a terrible bout of sea-sickness and, not being part of the crew and having no other urgent duties takes responsibility for her care – cleaning her up, moving her to his cabin and generally looking after her until they arrive at Oporto.

During this time, Hugh realises that Polly – whom he nicknames Brandon – is no milk-and-water miss. She is independent of mind and spirit with a great deal of backbone, and he finds himself falling for her, hard and fast. But he is almost twenty years her senior, and, convinced he is too old for her, determines to leave her in Oporto and journey onward to Lisbon, believing that once out of sight he will be able to put her out of his mind.

For her part, Polly is embarrassed by the Colonel’s care of her, knowing he’s seen her at her worst and believing it impossible that such a handsome, distinguished and commanding man could ever be interested in an a woman like her; plain and poor as she is, and illegitimate, to boot. But when they arrive at the convent-turned-hospital, Laura sees immediately that Hugh is more than a little interested in Polly, and warns him off. Hugh does not take exception to her warning – she says nothing that he hasn’t already told himself.

Hugh takes his leave, and Polly begins her work at the hospital, working alongside Sister Maria, who has asked her to teach English to the women and their children who have taken refuge at the convent. The women have been raped and brutalised by soldiers of the French army, and many of them still have nightmares about their experiences. One of the things Sister Maria does is to help soothe them at night so they can sleep, and she also asks for Polly’s help in this. Polly finds it difficult and draining – but knows she is doing good, and ends up writing pages and pages about her experiences and her own emotions in a long letter to Hugh, which she never intends to send.

Hugh misses Polly more than he could ever have imagined he would miss anyone, and admits to himself that he has finally found the woman he could spend the rest of his life with – while also telling himself he can’t have her because she’s too young for him and has her life to live.

When his ship returns to Oporto, he fully intends to sail back to England without seeing Polly again, not wanting to put himself through the pain of seeing her and having to leave her again. Fate, however, decrees otherwise, and very soon, the pair of them are thrust into an unwelcome and dangerous situation from which it seems unlikely they will escape with their lives.

Carla Kelly is one of those writers who can always be depended upon to come up with a well-written and entertaining story, but this book really is something special. The Napoleonic Wars are often referenced in historical romances set in and around this period, but are little more than a backdrop, whereas here, the reader is plunged into the midst of the uncertainty and horrors of war as experienced in this particular corner of Europe. There are a few upsetting scenes, especially when Hugh, Polly and Sister Maria are captured by a small group of French dragoons and their lives are hanging in the balance. Hugh and Polly claim to be married – hoping to prevent Polly’s violation at the hands of the soldiers – a fiction they maintain throughout their journey, which it becomes clear isn’t all that much of a fiction after all. The feelings which have already sprouted between them take root and grow, their affectionate gestures and verbal endearments a natural consequence of the attraction that already exists between them. It’s a beautifully written and heart-felt romance in which the connection between the protagonists is deep and real, and not just something which happens as the result of their terrible situation.

Hugh and Polly come across as real, ordinary people who find themselves having to deal with extraordinary circumstances. Hugh is a wonderful hero – strong and honourable, while being caring, protective and possessed of a wry sense of humour. And Polly is resilient and courageous, even though she is scared to death and isn’t afraid to admit it. Together, they help each other through weeks spent as the captives of a group of French dragoons as they travel across Portugal to join up with their captor’s regiment. The journey is hazardous, they are often starving and always uncomfortable, yet through it all they remain Hugh and Polly, two people doing what they must to survive who never lose their humanity amidst the terrible inhumanity of war.

Ms Kelly’s grasp of the history of the period is masterly, and she cleverly weaves a number of interesting historical facts into her story as well as engineering a meeting between her hero and heroine and the unconventional James Rothchild, one of the family of Jewish bankers who were doing their bit to undermine Napoleon through their financial and banking interests.

I am in awe of the author’s ability to have written such an emotionally intense and satisfying story in under three hundred pages. I freely admit to having teared up on at least two occasions while I was reading, and to finding my heart in my throat during times of peril. Ms Kelly doesn’t sugar coat the horror, desperation and degradation of war and I was truly impressed at the manner in which she humanised the opposing forces, showing them as men doing their jobs rather than demonising them.

Marrying the Royal Marine is a truly wonderful book, from start to finish. The romance is just beautiful, with Hugh and Polly showing each other over and over how much they care for each other in ways both big and small. They are partners in every sense of the word – looking out for each other, saving each other, and even managing to laugh together despite the gravity of the situation into which they are thrust. I know there are some readers who don’t care for such large age-gaps, but honestly, that doesn’t matter here. Polly isn’t some brattish teenaged air-head; she’s mature for her years and has a sensible head on her shoulders, and she and Hugh make a couple I can envisage as being happy together long after the last page has been turned.

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