There’s a special allure to a soldier in historical high society, almost as if he’s a magic trick. This singular creature has the strength and ferocity of a warrior simmering beneath the veneer of a gentleman. He knows how to behave, but he might choose, at any moment, to rebel. It’s no wonder that he makes for an exciting, unconventional hero in the restrictive worlds of Georgian and Regency Britain—and no surprise that he finds love with the most interesting and unconventional of heroines.
In A Scot to the Heart by Caroline Linden, our soldier hero is Andrew St. James, a Scotsman who joined His Majesty’s army to support his mother and sisters after his father made a mess of the family finances. To everyone’s surprise, Andrew learns that he is next in line to become the Duke of Carlyle. Which means, as the dowager duchess informs him, he needs to straighten up, learn estate management, do absolutely nothing to bring shame to the family—and find a suitable wife immediately.
But suitability is the last thing on Drew’s mind when he returns home to Edinburgh and meets Ilsa Ramsay, the notorious “wild widow” who plays golf, keeps a pet pony that she treats like a child and paints her drawing room to look like an open field. After a loving but stiflingly overprotected childhood and a frustrating marriage to a neglectful husband, Ilsa relishes her freedom and couldn’t bear to tuck her selfhood away into the role of a duchess. And yet, the thought of letting Drew becomes unbearable.
Ilsa is a vivacious, engaging heroine. Those familiar with the Georgian period know how easily a woman like Ilsa could end up committed to an asylum against her will, or shunned and disgraced, simply because she wants to color outside of society’s restrictive lines. Her driving desire to throw open life’s windows and let the world in shows the kind of spirit that should be admired instead of stifled, but it’s exactly this spirit that makes her think she could never be the wife that Drew needs.
Drew, to his credit, doesn’t take too long to let her know he disagrees. Even when scandal makes her a more inappropriate choice by the minute, he stays by her side to prove that he loves her for who she is, not for who others wish her to be. The way the scandal itself plays out is a bit of a sore spot—the true villain is never really held accountable—but one can forgive A Scot to the Heart for failing to satisfy readers’ vengeful sides when the romance wraps up so very sweetly.
Sweetly satisfying could also apply to the romance in Mary Balogh’s Someone to Cherish, the eighth installment of her Westcott series. It’s been a year of lonely widowhood for Lydia Tavernor after the tragic death of her handsome, charming and wildly charismatic vicar husband. Lydia harbors harmless fantasies, idly imagining what it would be like to take a lover. But things don’t stay idle when she accidentally lets slip a reference to those fantasies to the man who is their perennial star: Major Harry Westcott. No fantasy can compare to the flesh-and-blood passion of the man himself when he enters her life—and her bed—just as no fury can compare to the community’s outrage that Lydia would betray her “saintly” husband’s memory.
Here again is a story that easily could have been tragic, with another heroine who was lovingly smothered by her family and then overshadowed and ignored as a wife before embracing her widowed independence. But where Ilsa settles for private eccentricities, Lydia shows her strength and truly remarkable courage by stepping forward into society, directly challenging everyone’s view of her. When Lydia attends a public gathering dressed in pink, not black or gray or lavender as everyone would expect, it feels as shockingly brave as Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman striding undaunted across No Man’s Land.
One of the loveliest things about this romance is how, as Lydia comes into her own, the reader gets to watch Harry’s view of her shift accordingly. In the beginning, he really does dismiss her, as everyone has before. She’s not an instantly captivating beauty who dazzles every room she enters. Instead, she has a quieter loveliness that grows as Harry gains a better understanding of her and as she comes to a better understanding of herself. It’s that loveliness, inside and out, that surprises Harry, moves him, wins his heart in spite of himself and rallies his entire, hilarious family to support and encourage their match. (The Westcott family, by the way, is out in full force in this book. At this point in the series, it would require several pages to explain how everyone is linked, a fact that Balogh playfully lampshades when Harry teasingly threatens Lydia with a written test.) Harry works to win Lydia’s heart, but most of all, he fights to earn her trust—to prove that he loves her as she is and does not seek to change or control her. That’s what makes him worthy of her love in return.
In the end, these soldiers aren’t heroes because of their prowess on the battlefield, but because of how they fight for freedom for themselves and the women they love.