Eleanor Transome is the daughter of a wealthy coal merchant. Money and title mean little to her. In fact, she fancies herself in love with a distant cousin who is merely a clerk in a shipping office. She's more than willing to marry him, but he's turned her down, ostensibly because he has nothing to offer her. Ellie's father, however, is dying, and all he wants before passing on is to see his beloved daughter settled in a good marriage to a titled gentleman who can be trusted. To that end, he's chosen a husband for Ellie, a stranger about whom she knows nothing. If circumstances were different, she might plead her case to her father, but loving him too much to not fulfill his final wish, she reluctantly agrees to the match.
Randolph Pierce, the Earl of Falloden, unexpectedly came into the title when his cousin passed on without an heir. He's had his eye on a sweet, demure lady but has been unable to offer for her, because he is deeply in debt through no fault of his own. It was all inherited from his dissolute cousin, along with the title. Ellie's father comes to Randolph's door, out of the blue one morning, saying that he's purchased all the debts, but he will cancel every one of them and settle his fortune on Randolph if Randolph will marry his only daughter. Randolph is quite upset about essentially being blackmailed into marriage, but with his only other option being debtor's prison, he has little choice in the matter.
Ellie and Randolph's marriage gets off to a rocky start with each of them believing things about the other which aren't true. He thinks she's a cit who only wants the prestige of a title, while she thinks he's a spendthrift and a gambler who will probably fritter away all her father's money. But as they spend Christmas together with her extended family and his friends, they begin to see a different side to one another that is unexpected. Can the magic of the season draw them closer together and maybe even make them fall in love?
A Christmas Promise is a different sort of romance, at least in the way it progresses. Mary Balogh is an author I've come to appreciate for her unique take on romance and this book was no exception. In this story, the hero and heroine are essentially forced into an arranged marriage by her father. The heroine's father isn't a bad man, just one who is dying and has very little time left. He loves his daughter very much, calling her his precious jewel, and he wants to make an advantageous marriage for her and see her settled with a man he believes he can trust before leaving this mortal plane. He did his research extremely well and chose an earl who has a reputation as an honorable man, then buys up all the man's debts to persuade him to marry his daughter. As someone of the merchant class, it was about the only way he could see his daughter married to a titled gentleman in short order. Although neither of them would have been so crass as to say so to his face and mar the man's final days, his actions cause the hero and heroine to basically hate each other at first sight. Then they must find a way to move on from that inauspicious beginning to live amicably with one another, although neither believes that they'll ever fall in love.
Randolph and Eleanor couldn't be more different from each other if they tried. Randolph unexpectedly inherited the title of Earl of Falloden from a cousin who passed on without an heir, and in the process, he also inherited a mountain of debt. His parents died when he was young, so he was raised by his grandparents on the estate that now belongs to him. He's been taught all his life what he can and cannot do as a proper gentleman and has never really deviated from the prescribed rules of polite society. Eleanor is the daughter of a wealthy coal merchant. Her father had her educated as well as any proper lady, but she's still a hated cit who is considered to be crass and vulgar and has never felt like she fits in with polite society. As such she has little use for the ton. It was her father's dream, not hers, to see her married to a gentleman. She wants to marry someone she loves and would be just as happy with a man who has no money or title at all.
When Randolph and Eleanor first come together, they're like oil and water. They're simply two strangers who have no idea who the other person in their relationship is and each of them also bring their preconceived notions of what the other is like into the marriage. She thinks that because her father bought Randolph, he's probably a spendthrift and a profligate gambler who'll lose every penny of her father's money the second he gets his hands on it. He thinks she's rather vulgar and just a cit who was selfishly looking to marry above her station. He also believes that she's cold and unfeeling because she has a tendency to button up her emotions when he's around, when in reality she's simply uncomfortable expressing herself in the presence of a stranger. It all makes for a very awkward situation for both of them in the beginning, but neither has much choice in the matter. Randolph needs the money to restore his estate and avoid debtor's prison through no fault of his own, while Ellie would never dream of going against the wishes of a dying father she adores. At first, Randolph and Ellie seem determined not to like each other and to make each other suffer, but gradually, as they observe the other's behavior and open their hearts to the magic and joy of the holiday season, they manage to work through their anger at the situation and finally see one another for the decent and caring person each of them is.
Normally I wouldn't care much for a romance in which the hero and heroine are at odds for so long, because it doesn't seem to leave a lot of room for actual romance. Initially neither Randolph nor Ellie were particularly interested in pleasing one another. Even the sex is terrible at first, and and for those who abhor cheating of any kind, he keeps his mistress for a short time, visiting her twice, though it's barely a mention. None of this would typically be my cup of tea, but I ended up really liking the story anyway because of how very realistic and genuine it seems. When I took the time to think about how each of these individuals were plucked from their normal lives and essentially forced into a marriage neither of them wanted, it makes sense that they'd both be angry and resentful. Both were also in love (or at least fancied themselves in love) with other people beforehand, which only exacerbated the situation. When taking all this into consideration as well as the fact that they quite suddenly found themselves married to a complete stranger in a matter of a mere week's time, I could totally understand their feelings. Granted their communication could have been better. They often think of things they should say or do, but then their anger gets in the way of them being more pleasant and doing the right thing. They tend to engage in a dance of taking two steps forward then one step back for a large part of the story, but gradually they start to see the other person for who they really are and slowly but surely begin to trust and then fall in love with one another. The only reason I knocked off a half star is because even after Randolph starts to warm up to Ellie and begins treating her with more respect, she can still get a little biting and sarcastic with her comments. I understood where she was coming from, but perhaps it drug on just a tad too long.
Otherwise A Christmas Promise was a wonderful story that perfectly showcased the magic of Christmas. Ellie's family was absolutely delightful. I love how they joyously celebrate the holiday and how all of them get Randolph to come out of his sheltered world a bit. He's quite surprised to find himself enjoying their boisterous antics and even joining in, despite knowing his grandparents would be appalled at their vulgarity. Randolph and Ellie's romance may not have been a grand affair, but I really enjoyed seeing how they grew to care for one another through the quiet subtlety in their shared moments of amity. There are a number of secondary romances brewing in the background as well, which was the icing on the cake. Overall A Christmas Promise was another enjoyable read and a perfect compliment to the holiday season from Mary Balogh, who is masterful at creating very human relationships and flawed but likable characters.
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