Catherine Dunnan is devastated when her beloved goes off to war – and only his promise to write often can sustain her in her loneliness. And what letters they are, filled with heartfelt emotions that move her to respond in kind. But then the unthinkable occurs. He is cruelly lost to her, and his beautiful words of passion and devotion cease forever.
When Moncrief agreed to write warm and loving missives in a fellow officer’s name, he never expected he’d become so enamored of the incomparable lady who answered them, a woman he has never met. Returning to England to assume the unexpected title of duke, Moncrief is irresistibly drawn to the beauty who has unwittingly won his heart. More than anything, he yearns to ease Catherine’s sadness with his tender kisses. But once she learns his secret, will his love be spurned?.
I chose this book in response to one of the prompts for the AAR Days of the Week Reading Challenge, which was for Wednesday – Read an epistolary novel, or a book where letters, phone, text or email messages are relevant to the story.
I like epistolary novels in general – I’ve read several classics like Fanny Burney’s Evelina or Laclos’ Les Liaisons Dangereuses, but I haven’t read too many when it comes to more recently written titles, so this was a prompt I was keen to take up. I had a few options on hand to choose from: Laura Kinsale’s My Sweet Folly or Connie Brockway’s My Dearest Enemy are both books in which letters exchanged by the central characters play an important part, but in the end, I went for Karen Ranney’s Till Next We Meet, which has a flavour of Cyrano de Bergerac about it.
Moncrief (and I’m never sure whether that’s his first or last name, as he’s rarely referred to as anything else), a Colonel in the British army serving in Canada has, for some months, been writing to the wife of one of his officers – Captain Harry Dunnant – because the man can’t be bothered to do so himself. It’s not as though Moncrief makes a habit of doing such things, but the letter Harry laughingly tosses at him touches him deeply; Catherine Dunnant pours her heart and soul into her letters and Moncrief is able to discern the loneliness that often lies beneath her words. This speaks to something deep inside him: Moncrief is a respected officer and commander, but he has been in the army and away from home for fourteen years, doesn’t have any strong family ties and is a very lonely man at heart. He tells himself at the outset that he will simply respond to Mrs Dunnant’s letter in order to allay her fears about her husband, but when she writes in response, he is unable to resist the temptation to continue their correspondence, even though he knows it is ill-advised. Months pass, and Moncrief comes to realise that he has fallen in love with the witty, generous and loving woman who shines through in the letters. The correspondence has to come to an abrupt end with Harry Dunnant’s death, and Moncrief believes that the letter he writes to Catherine, advising her of her husband’s demise will be his last.
Some months later sees Moncrief travelling back to his home of Balidonough in Scotland as the newly minted Duke of Lymond. A third son, he had never expected to inherit lands and title, but his years in the army have most definitely prepared him for running a large estate and directing lots of servants as well as imbuing him with an air of authority and command. On his way home, he cannot resist paying a visit to Catherine Dunnant’s home – and is shocked to find an unkempt and somewhat addled young woman still in the throes of deep grieving who is clearly being seriously neglected.
Returning the following day, Moncrief finds Catherine near death from a laudanum overdose. It’s touch and go but he saves her life – only to be accused by the local vicar of compromising her. Without stopping to question his motives too much, Moncrief marries her and removes her to Balidonough as soon as she is well enough.
Catherine is still in an agony of grief over Harry’s death and doesn’t remember her re-marriage or, in fact, remember much of anything. She immediately senses that Moncrief is a good man, and finds his assertion that he married her because she needed rescuing to be somewhat disconcerting – but is not ready to surrender her heartache and make a new life for herself.
Till Next We Meet is a terrific story, beautifully told. Moncrief is a hero to die for – he’s already more than half in love with Catherine right from the start, and isn’t afraid to admit it to himself. Outwardly, he’s autocratic and severe, but we already know from his letters that inside, he’s tender-hearted and rather romantic. His self-confidence and competence are immediately attractive, as is the fact that he takes his new responsibilities seriously, cares deeply about his land and dependents, and wants to make their lives better. One of the things I really enjoyed about the way the author portrays him is that we don’t get a physical description of him until Catherine starts to see him clearly, and then after that, that each time we see him through her eyes, she notices more and more about his physical presence and how absolutely gorgeous he is. (He’s the hero of a romance – it’s a given he’s gorgeous!) But of course, he’s gorgeous on the inside, too, and that’s the man Catherine fell in love with, sight unseen.
While Catherine starts out as rather a pathetic figure, a woman whose (misplaced) grief is so strong that she is careless of her own life, as she recovers and gains strength, both the reader and Moncrief begin to see once again the young woman who wrote those beautiful letters, so full of love and longing. I appreciate that the author doesn’t have her railing against her marriage and accusing Moncrief of all sorts of iniquity – she accepts the situation, and realises that sooner or later, she is going to have to make something of it. She does, however, have her own, subtle ways of letting her new husband know that she’s not ecstatic about their hasty marriage, such as continuing to wear her widow’s weeds, and the fact that she sleeps with “Harry’s” letters beneath her pillow. But as the story progresses, she begins to regain her spirit, and I was almost cheering at the point in the story when she finally snaps and tells some obnoxious guests and relatives where to get off.
There are hints throughout the story that perhaps Catherine’s near-death from an overdose had not been an accident, and later, an incident at Balidonough seems to suggest that either Moncrief or Catherine is in danger, but the author has kept the mystery element of the story very low key, giving priority to the relationship developing between her central couple. So it comes as rather a surprise – and one which I enjoyed – to find the tension ramping up in the later chapters as the plot and culprit are revealed.
The relationship between Moncrief and Catherine is beautifully developed and presented, with Catherine gradually coming to appreciate Moncrief’s sterling qualities and to value his company and his affection. The sexual tension between the couple builds slowly, and because Catherine has asked for time to get to know Moncrief better before consummating the marriage, it’s fairly late in the story before things progress from heated looks and touches. But when it does, the passion between them is almost uncontrollable, and it’s well worth the wait 😉 My one criticism is that it took too long for Moncrief to own up to the fact that he is the author of “Harry’s” letters; he is given several opportunities throughout the book to fess up, but each time, he shies away from it for no really compelling reason that I could fathom.
Fortunately however, this is a minor niggle, because the rest of the story really is excellent. The characterisation is strong all-round, with even the minor characters being fully-rounded, and the author has created an atmosphere that is sombre without being depressing or gloomy. The loneliness endured by both Moncrief and Catherine is vividly evoked, and their gradual coming together is a true delight to read; they are so deserving of happiness in their lives that the pleasure and contentment they eventually find with each other feels as though it has been fully earned.