The Escape (Survivors' Club)
Dell / July 1, 2014 / $7.99 print / digital
After surviving the Napoleonic Wars, Sir Benedict Harper is struggling to move on, his body and spirit in need of a healing touch. Never does Ben imagine that hope will come in the form of a beautiful woman who has seen her own share of suffering. After the lingering death of her husband, Samantha McKay is at the mercy of her oppressive in-laws—until she plots an escape to distant Wales to claim a house she has inherited. Being a gentleman, Ben insists that he escort her on the fateful journey.
Ben wants Samantha as much as she wants him, but he is cautious. What can a wounded soul offer any woman? Samantha is ready to go where fate takes her, to leave behind polite society and even propriety in her desire for this handsome, honorable soldier. But dare she offer her bruised heart as well as her body? The answers to both their questions may be found in an unlikely place: in each other’s arms.
The catalyst of Mary Balogh’s Survivor’s Club series is the belief that by helping each other, a band of brothers (and one sister) can survive the vicissitudes and the aftermath of war. In the third book of the Survivor’s Club, The Escape, Balogh’s characters transcend survival and aspire to thrive. Freud’s definition of happiness, “to work and to love,” seems apt, since it moves the goalposts beyond simply enduring mental and physical trauma. For Sir Benedict Harper and Samantha McKay, happiness means living a life of self-worth and independence, with a partner to love being the potential icing on the cake.
It’s a classic Balogh plot: irrepressible heroine meets wounded hero. Samantha McKay is a very unhappy widow, but her natural resilience is starting to re-assert itself. She dutifully nursed her unappreciative husband for years, but after his demise, she is further suffocated by the strictures of mourning, as administered and monitored by her late husband’s dour sister. Sir Benedict Harper is a retired officer visiting his sister, who lives in Samantha’s neighborhood. After years of almost unendurable agony and persistence (his legs were crushed in war), Ben is able to maneuver with the aid of two crutches. His freedom of movement comes on horseback, although his weakened legs make his control of a horse rather tenuous.
These two wounded people find each other, as so often happens in Balogh’s world, out in the countryside. They share their life stories and Ben confesses that he is considering writing a travel book for those who are not “ruggedly fit and healthy” even though he has never done any writing. He shares,
“But I must do something. It does not make me comfortable to admit that I am an aimless nobody living nowhere. I must and will find a new challenge, and my eyes and my brain and my hands work well enough even if my legs do not.”
A week or so after their conversation, Samantha tells Ben that the Earl of Heathmoor, her father-in-law, is “throwing me out of Bramble Hall, and sending his son to live there.” She feels trapped, because her late husband’s family insists on such a strict version of widowhood for her—social ostracism and isolation after they move her to her husband’s childhood home.
Samantha shares her decision to flee before this can take place, as impetuous as that may sound. Ben gentlemanly offers to escort Samantha to her inherited home in Wales. Neither Samantha nor Ben wants to be forced into a marriage of convenience. Samantha’s need for an escort, though, frees her savior—she releases Ben from focusing on his life of uncertainty and pain, even if their carriage trip is only a temporary reprieve. Unlike Samantha, Ben doesn’t really have a plan for his future, so he rather welcomes this quixotic adventure. She, on the other hand, feels guilty, saying to him,
“You were going to Scotland.”
“I was going to travel,” he said. “And that is what I am doing. I could not and would not allow you to travel all the way to Wales alone.”
“You are doing it again,” she said. “Allowing me, not allowing me. I am very glad we are not married. I suspect you would be a tyrant.”
“I hope I would know how to protect my wife, ma’am,” he said stiffly, “even if it was sometimes despite herself. And you could not be more glad of our marital status or lack thereof than I am.”
But the walls of Jericho start to come down—or at least become weakened—by the prolonged, intimate carriage trip. Samantha thinks to herself that she “could feel his body heat down one side, though they were not touching. She could smell something that was distinctly masculine—leather, shaving soap, whatever.” Sir Benedict is having his own internal struggles.
He did not want them to become lovers. Well, he did. Of course he did. If he could shed all his clothes at this moment and plunge into a frigid lake, it would not surprise him at all if the water turned to steam.
Samantha and Ben finally arrive, only to be captivated by the idyllic Welsh setting, a setting where Balogh is at her descriptive and alluring best. From her window, Samantha “could see the sea and a strip of golden sand—just a stone’s throw from her own house.” Ben and Samantha grant each other a week’s respite of relaxation and peace, with him telling her to look at the sea.
“It was there long before we were thought of. It will be there long after we are forgotten, ebbing and flowing according to the law of the tides.”
“Our little affairs are insignificant?”
“Far from it,” he said. “Pain is not insignificant. Neither is bewilderment or fear. Or conditions like poverty or homelessness. But somewhere—somewhere—there is peace. It is not even far off. It is somewhere deep inside us, in fact, ever present, just waiting for us to look inward to find it.”
Buffeted by warm breezes and glorious sunsets, they begin to fall in love. Ben discovers that in the ocean, his lack of mobility on land doesn’t matter—he is free to swim and soar and regain his strength. Floating beside him is “every man’s dream of femininity.” Ben considers that perhaps “he had not, after all, reached the limits of his physical capabilities.” He is worried, though, that he will be inadequate if they sleep together but Samantha invites him upstairs, saying,
“Even if you do no more than hold me, I will not be disappointed. One of my loveliest recent memories is of waking at that inn where we were forced to share a room to find you holding me against you, one arm about me. It was so very long before that since anyone had so much as touched me…”
Samantha and Ben have been celibate for ages, but Samantha realizes that “as with swimming, it seemed it was not something he had forgotten. He knew just where to touch her, and just how.” Ben puts his expertise to good use in Samantha’s quiet bedroom, with the lady he has come to love. When it comes to the vast array of ways and methods to make love, no writer is more gifted in her descriptions than Mary Balogh. Samantha realizes that
…he had made love to her with his hand and given her that exquisite pleasure quite deliberately with the skill of his fingers.
“But I am not able to give you any pleasure,” she protested.
“Are you sure?” He laughed against her ear again, and she looked at him in the mirror and saw his eyes, heavy with … what? Desire? Passion? Sheer enjoyment?
While this might be the perfect place for a sensuous ending to a couple’s journey, one of the great strengths of The Escape is that falling in love is not everything. As in Balogh’s Slightly Dangerous, we have two people who sense they have found their soul mates in each other, but they also choose to take a step back, to contemplate their deepest wishes—in Ben’s case, seeing if he can carve out a life of meaningful work.
The expansive time span of The Escape is a delight. It’s moving and unusual to see a love story unfold so unhurriedly. When their idyll by the sea comes to an end, Benedict asks Samantha if she would like him to stay for a few more days.
Ah, she was so tempted to say yes, to cling to him. To use him as an emotional prop. And to postpone the inevitable goodbye just a little longer.
“No,” she said, “I need to be alone for a while. Everything I have known about my life has been turned upside down. I need to do some thinking.”
Alone. She was going to be alone. Without him. Forever.
He raised her hand to his lips and kissed her fingers.
“Shall we say goodbye now?” he asked her.
It is not too much of a hint to say that Sir Benedict would have been better off to say au revoir because of course this couple will meet again. Both Ben and Samantha have to make their way forward, for now, individually, conquering internal and external preconceptions, before they can meet again, fully able to embrace each other.
The Escape is such an apt title—two people escape from unhappy pasts, finding love in their mutual journey. Their capacity for happiness astonishes and delights them and the reader, as they both so deserve their hard-won happily-ever-after.
Learn more or pre-order a copy of The Escape by Mary Balogh, available July 1, 2014:
Janet Webb aka @janetnorcal has unpredictable opinions on books. Season ticket holder of the Oakland Athletics baseball team. Social media devotee. Stories on royals and politics catch my eye. Ottawa born. Grew up on Georgette Heyer and Mary Stewart. When I rediscovered the world of romance, my spirit guide was All About Romance's Desert Island Keepers — I started with the “A” authors and never looked back.