Jack Carstairs is a war hero who comes home from the Peninsula severely wounded only to find himself disinherited by his late father and jilted by his beloved fiance. Cynical and hurt, Jack hides away at the run-down country estate of Sevenoakes, the only thing that he has left. When Jack's grandmother, Lady Cahill, hears that he won't even see his own sister and that he's drinking himself into oblivion, she decides to take immediate and drastic action by visiting him herself.
On her way there, she stops to see Kate Farleigh who had spent time on the Peninsula herself. Along with her poor vicar father, she had followed her brothers and the rest of the army, tending to their needs in whatever way she could. When her father and brothers were all killed in the war, Kate was left an orphan. Unfortunate events befell her at the hands of the French army, leaving her disgraced as well as penniless when she finally returned to England. Kate's mother had been Lady Cahill's goddaughter, and when the kind lady hears of Kate's plight, she insists that Kate come live with her. When Kate's pride gets in the way of her well-being, Lady Cahill kidnaps the girl and whisks her away to Jack's estate.
When they arrive at Sevenoakes, Kate collapses from starvation in the driveway unseen by anyone but Jack who had been watching their arrival from the window. Realizing that no one else is going to help the girl, he kindly tends to her, thinking that she is one of his grandmother's servants. Kate decides to repay him by cleaning his kitchen and preparing his breakfast the next morning, but when Jack finds out her true identity, he becomes blustery about her continuing domestic pursuits. Lady Cahill realizes that Kate won't accept her help unless she feels she has earned it and that Jack needs a feisty woman like Kate around to lift him out of the doldrums, so she sets Kate up as Jack's new housekeeper. Jack and Kate bicker constantly as Jack is still reluctant to have Kate lowering herself to perform certain tasks and Kate boldly confronts Jack about his drinking and the need for further treatment of his injured leg. All the while both stubbornly fight their building attraction to each other, but will they allow their stubbornness and feelings of unworthiness to get in the way or give in to the call of their hearts?
Gallant Waif ended up being one of those books that I had a somewhat difficult time rating. The writing itself is excellent and well-deserving of having been a finalist for the Rita Award, but the push-and-pull relationship wasn't entirely to my liking. The hero and heroine of Gallant Waif have a love/hate romance that is about as tempestuous as I've read to date. This is something that I usually don't care for, but somehow it didn't annoy me in quite the way that most stories of this type would. I think this had a lot to do with both characters still being very sympathetic underneath the armor of their obstinacy. The author gives a lot of insights into why they think the things they do about each other, which in context, made a lot of sense to me. I still felt like shaking both of them on occasion though, because most their problems boiled down to a lack of communication and sheer stubbornness on both their parts. The softer moments are rather few and far between and didn't last long enough for me, but are very romantic when they happen. The vast majority of Jack and Kate's interactions are spent arguing. Sometimes their quarrels are laugh-out-loud funny, sometimes they are merely heated disagreements, and still other times they actually say things that are emotionally hurtful, occasionally deliberately although usually not. Whatever they happened to be wrangling over though, it all seemed to be a carefully choreographed dance to keep each other close while still holding each other at arms length and stubbornly denying their feelings. Although there were times that I wished that one or the other would lighten up a little, I strangely still understood them for the most part which is how I know that this novel was so well-written.
Jack isn't quite as intensely tortured as some heroes I've read, but he does have a tendency to brood a lot and drink too much. He was severely wounded during the Peninsular Wars and came home with his once handsome face now seriously scarred and a bum leg that prevents him from dancing or riding. Jack's father died just before his return having disinherited him for his choice of fiance, leaving Jack with only a run-down country estate and 500 pounds to his name. Then his shallow fiance broke off their engagement because of his scars and near-penniless state. All of this has left him understandably cynical, so when Jack's grandmother brings Kate to his home, he is trying to hide away from the world and drink himself into oblivion.
Kate is orphaned and penniless herself, with her father having been a poor vicar. He and her brothers were all killed in the war. Kate is considered by society to be a gently bred lady, but having traveled with the army on the Peninsula, she has seen and experienced the darker side of life. In fact, some unfortunate things happened to her during that time which make her believe that she is un-marriageable and have made her prefer a reclusive life away from society as well. I liked the dichotomy of her struggling to face what she believed was the reality of her future and still dreaming of getting a Cinderella-style HEA. Her father had also resented her, because of her mother dying while giving birth to her, so Kate never had her father's love, nor was she as well-educated as most ladies would have been. Her education was more one of experience, but she was a strong young woman who didn't shy away from hard or difficult work. When Jack's grandmother, who was godmother to Kate's mother, hears of her plight and comes to whisk her away, Kate resists, only to find herself thoroughly tricked and kidnapped by the old lady. Once she is safely ensconced in Jack's country home, she energetically throws herself into righting not only Jack's household but Jack himself. Of course, she initially doesn't realize that she's having a desirable effect of a different sort on Jack.
In all honesty, I'm not really used to both the hero and heroine being so emotionally damaged. Usually, when one character is severely battered in body and/or spirit, the other one is a little lighter. While it often takes a wounded person to understand a wounded person, I think I tend to prefer that one character be strong and understanding while also being less angsty. Jack and Kate carry about equal baggage, so they are both very emotionally intense while also both being incredibly stubborn. I will admit that it made them perfect for one another in some ways, because they were both willing to say what needed to be said when the other one needed a kick in the pants. On the other hand it was that angst and stubbornness which made them butt heads so often. It also kept them apart until the very end of the story, and diminished some of the emotional connection for me.
The one good thing about Jack and Kate's obstinate natures was that it created a situation that was ripe for sharp, witty bantering. I loved how sometimes Kate would verbally bait Jack, and then he, the military man who was used to ordering people around, would suddenly become flustered and not know what to say. These exchanges had me in stitches, and I have to say that I haven't had a book make me laugh like that in quite a while. I also liked Jack's grandmother, Lady Cahill. She was one of those really feisty old ladies who could definitely go toe-to-toe with both Jack and Kate, and without the support and behind-the-scenes manipulation of her and Jack's friend, Francis, I'm not sure they ever would have given in to their feelings for one another. In my opinion, the book could have used a little more dialog, especially of the non-combative type. I think that having three, prominent, hardheaded, alpha-type characters in one story was perhaps a bit too much, but fortunately, I still liked them all anyway. Also, as a side note, this story has no love scenes at all or any other particularly objectionable elements which should make it suitable for a wide range of romance readers. It was obvious that Jack and Kate both had very passionate natures, so I was slightly disappointed by this, but not overly so. Readers who like a good love/hate romance between two willful but likable characters that lead to both funny and emotional moments, should really enjoy this one. Even though I tend to like my romances a little more on the softer side, I actually enjoyed it too, which I think is mainly owing to Anne Gracie's superb writing skill. This was my first book by Ms. Gracie, but I will definitely be checking out some of her others as soon as I can.
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