As a young boy, British-born Sebastian St. Clair was abandoned in France and forced to join the French army in order to survive.
Now that the war is over, he has returned home to his beloved England, and is determined to live a quiet life as a country gentleman. He believes that his wish is about to come true when he begins to fall for his elderly aunt’s lovely companion, Miss Millicent Danforth.
But the French are not quite ready to let him go, and they’ve devised a devious plot that could destroy everything that Sebastian holds dear. He will have to use all of his wits if he plans on escaping this scheme with his life … and his love.
In this, the second book in Ms Burrowes’ Captive Hearts trilogy, the story focuses on Lord Sebastian St. Clair – aka Robert Girard, former officer in the French army and a man known to have tortured a number of British army officers during the Napoleonic War. Among those men was Christian Severn, Duke of Mercia (hero of The Captive), who suffered more at Girard’s hands than any of the other officers.
It’s a pretty tall order for an author to take a man like Girard/St. Clair and turn him into a romantic hero, but Grace Burrowes does it with panache, aplomb and any number of other adjectives that describe total success.
As a very young man, Sebastian – born of an English father and a French mother – is with his parents visiting relatives in France. When war breaks out between the two old enemies, his father is summoned back to England, but there is no safe way for his wife and son to accompany him and they remain in France. When his mother dies not long afterward, Sebastian is left alone and makes the only decision he can make if he is to survive – he joins the French army.
He rises through the ranks until he becomes known for his ability to read men and to get information out of them – not necessarily by threats or coercion – and he later becomes one of their most successful interrogators. Choosing to go by his middle names – Robert Girard – Sebastian finds himself in an impossible and truly terrible situation when he is detailed to extract information from English officers while also keeping his more vicious and bloodthirsty superior officer, Henri Anduvoir, happy with the information he obtains and the physical damage done to the captives.
At the end of The Captive, we learned that St. Clair had in fact been doing his best to help the men sent into his custody, and those revelations continue in The Traitor.
When the war ends, Sebastian returns to England, now as Baron St. Clair – widely known as the Traitor Baron – wanting nothing more than to be allowed to live his life as an obscure English gentleman. Unfortunately, however, it seems that each English officer who suffered at his hands is out for revenge, and when the book starts, Sebastian has already survived four duels. As the story progresses, it becomes clear that not all those duels have been motivated solely by their challengers and that there is someone pulling strings behind the scenes. Sebastian is an embarrassment to people on both sides of the Channel and must therefore be disposed of in a way that will not cause an international incident.
My heart was breaking for him before I’d got even a quarter of the way through the book. Here is a man who found himself – through no fault of his own – between a rock and a hard place, and who nonetheless managed to engineer a situation in which all parties gained something in the end. All parties, that is, except himself. He lives with the constant threat of death and has pretty much resigned himself to the fact that he won’t live to be an old man – and accepts that as his due. He’s carrying a weight of guilt and sadness that informs his every action and decision, and the writing communicates it brilliantly, even in those moments when he is attempting to be more lighthearted. The one thing he is trying to do above all else is to protect those close to him – which at this point is his sole living relative, his aunt Frederica (Freddie), which he does to the best of his ability by making sure that he isn’t seen in her company very often.
Milly Danforth joins Lady Freddie’s household as her companion. Until recently, Milly lived with her two aunts, and before that with her cousins, who treated her as an unpaid drudge and regard her as a simpleton because (highlight to read spoiler) she suffers from what we would today recognise as some form of dyslexia and is unable to read or write. One of Milly’s aunts has recently died, and the other, knowing that she won’t be around for much longer either, sends Milly off to find herself a suitable post, somewhere she will thrive and be well treated.
Lady Freddie is one of those splendidly outspoken and eccentric older ladies that are often found in the pages of historical romances. She’s independent and clever and during Sebastian’s absence managed the St. Clair estates, and now is keen for him to make sure of the succession by marrying and setting up his nursery. But Sebastian knows he probably won’t live long enough to do either of those things, and he certainly doesn’t want to single out any woman by his attentions, as it would likely make her a target.
Yet he is drawn to Milly, who is intelligent and very perceptive. Their romance develops slowly at first, although there is plenty of chemistry between them, and I really appreciate the way Ms Burrowes takes her time, having the couple get to know each other fairly well before heating things up a bit. The central relationship is beautifully developed and both characters display great insight towards each other, each understanding the hurts and humiliation the other has suffered and able to relate to them in some way.
MilIy is kind and accepting, but is utterly fierce when it comes to Sebastian, whether she’s defending him to himself or to others. She understands why he did what he did, reminds him that he wasn’t the only one and that he is just as worthy of forgiveness as the next person. Most of all, I love that she simply won’t allow him to give up.
Sebastian is rather a remarkable hero. Not only does Ms Burrowes turn a man who practiced torture upon other human beings into a romantic lead, she reveals him to be a man of incredible courage, intellect and insight. When forced into fighting a duel, he does not merely accept that the men who challenge him are out for revenge, he also understands that he is a necessary part of their own healing process. He never retaliates, he never protests he was following orders or gives any other excuses; he just submits to the insults or punches or whatever is meted out to him, because he believes that doing so will help those men to assuage some of their own guilt and pain. And because he believes he deserves it.
He’s a complex and fascinating character and is quite possibly Ms Burrowes’ most memorable hero – and that’s saying something, because she’s created quite a few of them!
There’s an added touch of suspense in the story created by Sebastian’s growing uncertainty about the loyalty of his long-time companion and bodyguard, Michael Brodie (whose story is next up, in The Laird). Ms Burrowes has once again written a superb male friendship, one in which it’s clear that these two people would do anything for each other, no matter how often they gripe and snipe. Christian and Gilly, the Duke and Duchess of Mercia make guest appearances, and there’s an interesting relationship burgeoning between those two characters, too, despite what happened between them. Both have a very strong respect for the other, and Christian finds himself unexpectedly interested in – and with some sympathy for – Sebastian’s situation.
The identity of the villain of the piece is obvious, but while the behind-the-scenes machinations against Sebastian are part of the story, they’re not the whole. At the heart of The Traitor is a man who has suffered extreme betrayal and the loss of hope even as he was working tirelessly to preserve the lives of others, a man whose sense of loyalty and honour are so strong that he sacrificed his piece of mind and will possibly sacrifice his life because he wanted to do the right thing.
And at his side is a woman who will fight just as fiercely for what she knows to be right. The final confrontation is, I admit, a teeny bit OTT, but by that time, I was so invested in Milly, Sebastian and their story that I really didn’t care.
Put simply, this is a wonderful book and a superb follow up to The Captive – don’t miss it. Bring on The Laird!