Mary Balogh’s Regency Valentine story “The Substitute Guest” features a quiet dutiful spinster, living out her days with her brother and his family. This story is darker in tone than her earlier Valentine stories, more revelatory of the risks lovers take when they make themselves vulnerable to love.
“The Substitute Guest,” Tokens of Love, 1993
A jaded rake, a duke no less, and a “plain and placid” spinster: is that not the most enduring cliché of historical romance? Lady Florence has planned a playful orgiastic Valentine’s weekend for six gentlemen and six ladies.
Unfortunately, one of the ladies has begged off because she’s been laid low with migraines. In a pinch Lady Florence asks her neighbor Claire Ward, to join “a select group of the most prominent and respected members of society.” Claire is the right age—“very much closer to thirty than to twenty” although she’s “a confirmed spinster and a prude,” but fortunately for Lady Florence’s numbers, Claire accepts her invitation. Even though Claire is inclined to turn it down, her acceptance becomes an act of defiance against the overbearing advice of the visiting vicar and her sister-in-law Myrtle.
The Reverend Clarkwell says “that for the sake of propriety and your reputation you should return the most formal of refusals” and when the relieved Myrtle says, “It is settled, then,” Claire says that she “is curious to know what such a party will be like and who the select and respected members of society are.” Claire may be curious about the house party but the Duke of Langford knows just what to expect,
A companion and a bed partner for a few days without any effort on his part either to entice or hold at bay. February was a dull month of the year…Valentine’s Day had been a brilliant invention of someone who had known something about boredom.
One of the enduring motifs of a historical Valentine’s Day story is the tableau of men choosing their human Valentine—their sweetheart for an evening, a day or a weekend—by picking up an anonymous card, or supposedly anonymous. Most ladies let their gentlemen know in advance which face-down heart-shaped card was theirs. In “A Waltz Among the Stars” the viscount decides not to pick up Lady Eve’s valentine and in “The Substitute Guest” the duke deliberately picks Claire’s valentine rather than Lady Florence’s.
She watched as he pinned the heart just above her left breast, felt the heat of his fingers burn through to her flesh—they were long, well-manicured fingers—and read his name upside down as it had been scrawled in bold strokes beneath the small neatness of her own name. “Langford,” he had written.
Whew, feeling the heat a little there. Why, the duke wonders, did he pick Claire’s heart instead of Florence’s—“Perhaps it was just that he had a perverse preference for choosing rather than being chosen.” It doesn’t take long for Claire to grasp the activities of the weekend, even though her partner almost capriciously extracts her from the more overtly sexualized games. He takes her to look at the pictures in the upper gallery and when they speak of their lives, their conversation quickly becomes intensely personal.
“You should not be here, you know,” he said. “You are about as at home here as I would be at the bottom of the ocean.”
“I know,” she said, her voice unable to hide her bitterness. “Naïve spinsters of eight-and-twenty do not belong at a house party with people who know a thing or two about life and the world. I should be at home with my brother and sister-in-law.”
“That was not my meaning,” he said. “You should be in your own home, Claire, with your husband, your children abovestairs in the nursery.”
There, the crux of her life. She does not regret nursing her father through his final illness and she is justifiably proud of her usefulness to others but oh how tempted she is by what the duke suggests. He admits he is “not the sort of man to be satisfied with kisses for three days … and three nights,” but to their mutual surprise, Claire says, “Perhaps I am not the sort of woman to be satisfied with a few kisses for a lifetime.” Gerard, the rakish duke of Langford, tells Claire she is “worth more” than a stolen weekend but she admits, to him and to herself, that “Life has always been bleakest on Valentine’s Day.”
What does the reader expect now? That Claire and Gerard will join together for their mutual delight, that love making will prove to be “the key that unlocks the door” of lasting passion? Not in this story. Although the experienced duke knows that Claire is his for the taking, when Gerard truly sees Claire, he sees a “woman who had allowed him to cut a chink in her armor so that he had glimpsed all the longing and loneliness within.” Echoing the theme of one of Balogh’s most popular books, A Summer to Remember, Gerard says, “…we will have to make sure that this is a Valentine’s to remember…“Romance,” he said. “That is the word, is it not?”
Romance and two days of togetherness, avoiding the more sordid of Florence’s agenda of delights, Claire and Gerard revel in each other’s company. But as time passes, Claire is swept up in her feelings for Gerard and she assures him of her willingness to be with him, begging him to make love to her. But like the hero of The Incurable Matchmaker, Gerard refuses to make love, telling her it would be sordid and nothing but “sex pure and simple.” Understandably, Claire feels rejected and unwanted, especially when she wakes up on Valentine’s Day morning feeling “more achingly alone than she had ever felt.” Claire may be inexperienced but she is not afraid of admitting the truth to herself—even though her eyes are puffy and her heart is heavy, she faces her final day with Gerard “with her chin up” because she knows that in the fullness of time “she would be willing to give all she possessed for just one hour with him.”
Imagine her dismay when her fellow guests tell her at the breakfast table that Gerard had galloped away an hour earlier. When Gerard reappears at lunchtime she retreats to the library, “as if she had the hounds of hell at her heels.” Not even Gerard’s quiet apology for not wishing her a happy Valentine’s Day can raise her spirits.
Like they have before, Claire and Gerard open their hearts to one another, speaking and listening with great honesty. Although Gerard acknowledges that he has wounded Claire’s feelings by refusing to sleep with her, he says it is because he loves and respects her too much. Claire is less than impressed, saying that “respect is a cold lover.” But Gerard parries,
“I could not take you to bed last night, Claire, in a parody of love. Sex is not love. At least, it never yet has been with me.”
Claire says it doesn’t matter and that by tomorrow they’ll both be back living their familiar lives.
“Do you want to?” he asked. “I don’t think I do,” he said. “In fact I know I do not, though of course launching out into the unknown is a little frightening too.”
“Men can do something different with their lives anytime they wish to,” she said. “Women cannot.”
But inevitably, magically, Claire is invited to “share the terror—and the exhilaration” if she will consent to be his duchess, his “valentine for a lifetime.” Gerard has even braved visiting her brother Rodney and her sister-in-law Myrtle that morning, to obtain their blessing.
It is to Balogh’s credit that the duke’s proposal doesn’t devolve into a sea of mushy goo—Gerard promises Claire not a fairytale but a partnership, admitting from the beginning that his relations with his family, his social world, and his tenants are deeply damaged. He says, “I know nothing about love and tenderness.” Lest we worry that the rake has changed all his spots (and who would want that?), Gerard begs Claire to say yes: “I shall keep on kissing you until you do. I have decided after all not to play fair.” And most sweetly of all, he tells her that he chose her valentine deliberately, although he’s not at all sure why.
“I rather suspect, Claire, that without anyone’s having noticed it, there must have been a fat and naked little cherub hiding up on the chandelier, a bow and arrow in his hands. And his arrow must have pierced my heart right through the center. He was taking quite a chance. Rumor had had it for several years past that I have no heart at all.”
“The Anniversary” is the story of a young wife and mother, estranged from her dashing husband. The darkest of Balogh’s Valentine stories, Balogh shows that love doesn’t always follow a straight and narrow path, although the rewards can be great if and when lovers take a leap of faith.
“The Anniversary,” From the Heart, 1994
Appearances can be deceiving. What do we make of a young wife, still a nursing mother, whose request to attend a Valentine’s Day house party is refused by her absent husband Hugh, who says he’s coming home to spend Valentine’s Day with her? The selfish cur, or the despicable scoundrel; those epithets all sound good. But Amy, the Countess of Reardon, does not indulge in self-pity. She allows her maid to dress her so that she looks her best, even though she is conflicted about seeing her husband again.
A faithless husband, who had married her almost a year before and not bedded her on her wedding night or any night since, who had brought her here on her wedding day and left the same evening to return to London? Who had been home only once since for those three silent weeks? Who had now forbidden her attendance at the only Valentine’s party of her life? Had she dressed like this for him? She hated him.
A wife who hates her husband and a husband who dreads seeing his estranged wife—can this marriage be saved? The Earl of Reardon admits to himself that returning home for Valentine’s Day is “the hardest thing he had done in his life.” He had been back home once before, for the birth of their child. He stayed for three weeks afterward but returned to London after the christening. Hugh is wracked by guilt, for he believes that he raped Amy, on Valentine’s Day a year earlier, setting in motion a child and a hasty marriage.
And now he was to set eyes on her again. And to work something out with her. Something that would make her life seem a little less like imprisonment in the country. Something that would make his own life a little more bearable—something that would give him just one good night’s sleep again.
Let’s be clear—“a single drunken encounter—they had both been drunk—had had consequences.” No communication since their abrupt marriage, massive guilt on both their parts, psychological and physical distance: their only place of amity is a mutual love of their baby James. James is the light of Amy’s life.
Hugh, holding his son after two months separation is overwhelmed: “How could one look at a baby’s hands, he wondered, and not believe in God? It was a thought that took him completely by surprise.” Hugh realizes that somehow he is going to have to turn back the clock. A year earlier he had wooed a young girl, taken “her away from a party she had no business attending right into the bed in which he had taken his pleasure with countless courtesans and mistresses.” It is past time for new memories to be created.
Balogh deftly weaves scenes from the night that James was conceived into the narrative, bringing complexity to the actions and memories of the evening. Amy “had been drunk but not insensible” and as we learn, she had been in love with the dashing earl from the moment she first laid eyes on him in London. A mad crush culminated in a magical night, where she “enjoyed every moment of the intimate play of their bodies.” A year later two stiff people awkwardly share a formal dinner and make conversation. Hugh asks about his son,
She licked her lips. “He likes to sleep on his stomach,” she said, “with his legs drawn up beneath him. He looks most peculiar. He was a very unhappy baby before I discovered that.”
“I sleep on my stomach,” he said.
She almost laughed and then did. Her laughter sounded nervous and quite out of place.
There are more surprises in store for Amy. After dinner Hugh asks her to play the piano and sing, saying she “used to have a lovely contralto voice.” How does he know that? Had he ever noticed before “her bold drunk person had taken his eye at the opera house?” Balogh takes us behind the scenes with this information—we realize that both Amy and Hugh had watched each other avidly for a year before their intimate encounter. At the end of the evening Hugh slides Amy’s wedding ring off her fourth finger.
“That, I believe,” he said very softly, “was an encumbrance. Apart from the fact that we share a son, we have no ties that merit the ring, do we?”
He tells Amy that tomorrow, Valentine’s Day, she will be his valentine. What a risk Hugh takes. How much easier it would be to develop a formal, mannerly modus operandi, as a guide to their future lives. But he wants more than coexistence. A man with a plan needs co-conspirators and Hugh has three, his cook, butler, and gardener.
When he asks, “How does one woo a young maiden on Valentine’s Day?” the cook sums it up with “You be nice to her, that’s what.” The gardener says that roses are magic, “Better than di’monds, m’lord.” The butler says music, suggesting a talented local pianist and violinist play for the couple. Candlelight, dancing, a romantic party for two—and a Valentine’s Day that starts with the earl serving morning chocolate to his wife as she awakens, a nod to the tradition that a young woman will fall in love with the first man that she sees on Valentine’s morning.
Something else is awakening in Amy, her “woman’s needs.” She admits to herself that she wants more in her life than just a relationship with her baby. It doesn’t hurt that her husband, dressed in riding gear, is gorgeous. But Amy wants more than a second seduction; she wants “pure, wonderful, chivalrous romance.” Hugh also wants a “day of fantasy” but in order to see each other with fresh, forgiving eyes, frank conversation has to be embraced as well.
When Hugh admits to Amy that she is a millstone around his neck, understandably she feels rejected and angry. But it’s springtime, they’re young and resilient, willing to risk all to have the marriage they both want. Tired of being excluded, Hugh joins his wife in the nursery while she nurses his son. Throughout the day they smile, talk, argue, reflect and slowly develop a tentative intimacy. Finally Amy cannot control her passionate desire to embrace what happened between them a year earlier.
“I will not have it said ever again that my son was conceived in ugliness. He was conceived in beauty. I don’t care who you were or are or how carelessly you seduced me—though no seduction was necessary…It was beautiful, what happened…It was the most wonderful experience of my life, and I am glad James came of it.”
Hugh is thunderstruck not by her words but her passionate anger, when she reclaims her memories, unlocks his own, and he remembers whispering “I love you.” Fast forward to a new Valentine’s Day evening, one filled with roses, music, dancing, and love. The earl tells his wife that “there are two men in your life, not just one” and whisks her into a romantic waltz. Before the evening ends he admits that he had loved her “secretly and unwillingly” for a year before they met by accident in the opera house. He tells her there has been no other woman in his life since their marriage.
“I want you tonight and every night. I want to live with you every day and sleep with you every night. I want to be a father to my son—to our son—and to any future sons or daughters we may be blessed with. I want a marriage with you, Amy. I will settle for nothing less.”
And of course Hugh asks Amy to marry him again and slides her wedding ring back onto her finger, saying, “With this ring I thee wed, my dearest love. Because I love you. For all time.”
I wish I could say that Balogh’s Valentine stories are available electronically, but I regret they are not yet (but all of the anthologies can be purchased used, and not for a king’s ransom.) It’s past time for a new generation of readers to revel in Balogh’s themes of estrangement, quiet moral courage, joyful lovemaking, and honorable duty. They are woven through “Golden Rose” (1991), “A Waltz Among the Stars” (1992), “The Substitute Guest” (1993), and “The Anniversary” (1993). Perhaps the cast of characters are predictable at first glance—two virgins, two mothers, a widower, and three rakes—but if you leave your assumptions behind you will enter into a world where a single day can make all the difference.
Janet Webb, Blogger