One of the most serious compacts between the reader and the author is the Happily Ever After (HEA). When I pick up a romance, I know that no matter how tortuous the pathway to true love, that there will be an HEA. But there are a few books, usually seared into your consciousness, that test that theory to the limit; A Precious Jewel by Mary Balogh is one.
Ask about A Precious Jewel and you’ll get a lot of feedback. It was first published in 1993 and republished in 2009. Here’s the description from Mary Balogh’s website:
Sir Gerald Stapleton takes Priscilla Wentworth out of a brothel to be his mistress when he discovers that she has been abused. He does not understand quite what she has come to mean to him, though, until she leaves him one day to marry someone else—and then simply disappears beyond trace.
The feedback centers around Priscilla’s profession: she’s a real working girl and has been working in a high class brothel for months before she meets Sir Gerald Stapleton. After Priscilla disappears, Gerald looks for her to make sure that she has married happily and although he does not find her, he does uncover her past, learning that she was gently reared and that poverty drove her to her decision to become a prostitute.
Gerald asks Kit Blythe, the owner of the brothel and Priscilla’s former governess, how this could happen:
“A lady?” he said. “But why?”
“For the same reason as a girl from the gutter,” she said. “From a desire to live a little longer in this wonderful world, Sir Gerald.”
It takes Gerald a long time to process information, a rather 21st century way of saying that he is not particularly quick witted, but eventually, four months later, he realizes that Priscilla left him not because she now longer cared for him but because she was pregnant. Gerald finally convinces Kit to tell him where Priscilla is living.
"She is like the daughter I never had,” Miss Blythe said rather sadly.
He lifted his eyes to hers. “She is like the wife I have never yet had, ma’am,” he said. “I suppose the fact should make us allies, not enemies.”
We know how this ends; Gerald goes to Priscilla’s side, tells her he loves her and—insert chords of romantic music—the book closes with them in a loving embrace. But that’s not what happens.
When Gerald sees Priscilla, “He had difficulty catching his breath for a while. She was huge with child.” She is a “glowing, vital creature,” contented with her life and looking forward to the imminent birth of their child. Gerald explains to her that he had just figured out why she left (her pregnancy). He says that he thought “you had grown tired of me after all and wanted to leave. So I let you go.”
Cut to the chase. Gerald asks if there’s a clergyman who can marry them, saying, “I don’t want my child to be born out of wedlock.” Priscilla refuses, stating that because of how they met and what she was, that a marriage is impossible; Gerald protests that that’s not how it is and he even shows her the special marriage license he has obtained. One of the most endearing features of A Precious Jewel is the honesty and self-awareness shown by Gerald. He tells Priss that it was not easy for him, a mere baronet, to purchase a special license but she says no, again….We have arrived at the blackest moment.
Heroes don’t often cry, but Gerald is blinded by tears when he leaves Priscilla’s cottage. Cut away to me sniffling, too. This is not supposed to happen; the hero has found his heroine, after months of separation, marriage license in hand and she refuses him, even though we know she loves him and she’s just about to give birth. No, I wail inside my head.
Never was the certainty of an HEA more necessary than in this bleak moment: Gerald, stumbling towards the cliffs of the seaside town, his eyes filled with tears and Priss, sitting at her kitchen table with tea cups growing cold, her barely healed heart now cracked and bruised again.
But then there’s a knock at her door. Gerald is back. Mary Balogh says it all so perfectly. Gerald tells Priscilla that she must not have believed that he loves her,
“It was because you weren’t convinced, wasn’t it?” he said. “You thought it was just because I knew who you were and because of the baby. You did not quite believe it was because I love you, did you?”
Priscilla says, “You did not mention love, Gerald.”
And then Gerald tells Priscilla he loves her in heart-breakingly sincere words. First he admits the depths of his despair after Priscilla left him,
“I wanted to die.  It makes a pathetic story, doesn’t it?  … this is the reason. That you are the only thing in my life that makes me want to live it, Priss. Like some priceless little jewel in the middle of the desert. Or something like that. I never was good with words.”
Gerald then asks Priss to look, really look, at the special license, and see the date it was issued. He got it four months earlier, after Priscilla left him, saying that she was returning home to marry a former swain.
At last Priscilla believes that Gerald loves her, and when he says,
“And you can see that I had the license long before I knew about the child,” he said. “I got it for only one reason, Priss. You must see that now.”
When Priscilla finally says yes, even though the marriage of a former prostitute and a baronet means they most likely will never be received by society, it’s one of the most delicious moments imaginable, after months of despair.
He smiled at her suddenly, more radiantly than she had ever seen him smile before. “You are going to say yes, aren’t you?  I have dreamed of this moment for months and never believed that it would really come. Say it. Will you marry me?”
“Yes,” she said.
And they lived happily ever after. Oh, I know that readers everywhere, if they’re suspicious and worried like me, won’t quite believe in Gerald and Priscilla’s HEA and for us, Mary Balogh, wrote A Christmas Bride. But the love displayed here is love that is hard-won and hard-fought and even now, after countless re-reads, I’m reaching for a tissue. It’s like crying at a wedding.
Janet Webb, Book Lovers Resource