In Mary Balogh's A Christmas Promise, recently re-released as an e-book, the hero and heroine are blinded by both pride and prejudice, in that most iconic of romance conflicts.
Eleanor Transome is a merchant's daughter, a woman who has been given the education of a lady, but is not of the aristocracy. Her dying father is fabulously wealthy and loves his daughter with all his heart. He wants to see her well taken care of before he dies, and has aspirations for his grandchildren, so he buys up all of an earl's outstanding debts and basically blackmails the lord to marry his daughter. If he does not agree, Mr. Transome says, he will call in the debts and the earl will be ruined.
Randolph, the Earl of Falloden, is livid at Transome's machinations, but has no choice but to accept the offer if he wants to keep the manor in which he grew up. His debts are, further, not his own, but those of a former earl. He has assumed them as an honorable action. In accepting the offer, he believes that Eleanor just wants to enter the aristocracy, and that it was to please her that her father did as he did. Further, he sees how she treats her dying father, and he is appalled that she doesn't touch him, nor even seem to grieve when he dies. She refuses to put on mourning, for example, saying it was her father's wish that she not, and that she try to have a happy Christmas.
For her part, Eleanor thinks that Randolph's debts are his own, and that he will have spent all of her father's money within a year. She thinks he is a dissolute, womanizing gambler (she is told he has a mistress), and she adopts a haughty mien whenever Randolph seems to imply she comes from a vulgar background.
Of course this could all be cleared up with a simple conversation, but it isn't, in fact, that simple. And so the worst, most painful moment of the book happens after Randolph has eavesdropped on Eleanor and a past love interest—her cousin Wilfred—and confronts her. It is agony to read the scene, even though you know this is a love story, and so things will, invariably, work out.
You know I do not, she had said when her cousin had asked her if she loved her husband. Those words and the scornful tone in which she had spoken them were echoing in his head. And he felt wounded by them. Foolishly hurt. He had known that. There had been no pretense of either love or affection on either side. Quite the contrary. And yet her words had hurt him. Perhaps because they had been spoken to someone else? Because someone else now knew the emptiness of their marriage?
“You really do not have any great need for me, do you?” he said. “Your father left you almost half his fortune, and you have family members who would be only too happy to take you in.”
“If you think to rid yourself of me so easily, my lord,” she said, “you will be sadly disappointed...I will not leave you. Do not expect it of me or hope for it. According to the morality of my class, the marriage vow is taken for life.”
She had a way of being totally submissive and yet of sounding and looking so thoroughly aloof that she seemed like an impregnable fortress.
Eleanor reacts to conflict by bristling and goading the other person into a quarrel. Randolph eventually figures that out, and dubs her a “hedgehog.” But both Randolph and Eleanor are justified, initially, in their suspicions of one another, so that even though a simple conversation could have cleared up all of this misgiving, it is totally plausible that they would not have had it, at least not until some of their defenses have been breached.
A Christmas Promise is a wonderful holiday historical, but it is also a romance featuring two deeply pained people.
Megan Frampton is the Community Manager for the HeroesandHeartbreakers site. She lives in Brooklyn, NY, with her husband and son.