Harlequin Historical from June 2010, and the third in a trilogy, Marrying the Royal Marine . It should also be noted that I've only read a couple Harlequin Historicals, because in my mind a historical should be longer. And the covers are cheesy. I sat down yesterday and read the entire thing. If I were the type to buy and keep books, this one would be a keeper.
Polly Brandon is the youngest illegitimate daughter of a complete sleezeball. She's grown up in orphanages and believes herself to be ugly and unworthy. Despite these things, she's generally fairly content and when the opportunity arises for her to travel to Portugal to help her older sister in the war, she goes. After boarding the ship for a week long trip, she discovers that she gets horribly sick on boats, and being the only female on the ship, has to accept help from Lieutenant Colonel Hugh Junot, Royal Marine. (Seems unlikely, but it's well done as to why it has to be him.) The two are immediately comfortable with each other, and find themselves secretly falling in love, despite each knowing it's impossible. After arriving in Oporto, they are separated for a time, but the feelings don't go away. The Napoleonic War throws them back together, in horribly intimate circumstances, and they manage to fall completely in love.
Guys, this was terrific. I loved every single bit of it. The setting is so well done, the author clearly knows her history (or seems to, I am not overly familiar with the war) but doesn't stop the story to teach you the details, she just assumes you'll figure it out. Rather than having war be the backdrop to force the time period, the war is front and center. These people are IN the war. The book does not shy away from the horrible bits- death, massive injury, rape, madness, starvation, misery. These things are not alluded to, they are THERE. And yet the focus on our couple is still maintained. It is so well done, that while you are horrified by the circumstances you're also able to believe the love story.
The hero is just terrific, despite being named Hugh. Compassionate and smart, good looking and terribly old. (He's 37.) He's honest with both Polly (who he calls Brandon) and himself. He knows he wants a wife and a family, and he is very aware that Polly is painfully young (she's 18 as the story opens.) He is honorable, even as he walks away from her in misery. (So many romance heroes would give a pretty speech to her about how they can't be together, and break her heart before leaving. He doesn't do this.) Polly is young, but not sheltered. She knows her position in life and is not trying to snag a hero or be anyone she's not. She's slower to realize her feelings, but like Hugh, is always honest with herself. She finds herself in an adventure much more dangerous than she ever dreamed, and she's able to stand up and be a hero in her own right. (I don't mean hero-who-won-the-war, I mean hero-who-does-the-right-thing-when-it'd-be-easier-not-to.) I really loved the way the author was able to give them both very distinct voices, and clearly showed their internal dialogue without becoming melodramatic or silly. There were no moments of contrived drama, and I never had to suspend belief.
This will easily be in my top ten of the year, and I'll be watching the thrift store for my own copy. You better believe that I will be picking up the first two in the series at the library today.
You can find Carla Kelly online here and here.