Title: Keeper’s Pledge (Midwinter Manor #2)
Author: J.L. Merrow
Buy link: Amazon.com
Genre: M/M historical
Length: Novella (91 pages)
Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5
A guest review by Leslie S
Review summary: Enjoyable sequel featuring a potential love-triangle and the risk of discovery for the young gamekeeper and his upper class lover.
Landowner Philip Luccombe has been enjoying a passionate relationship with young poacher turned gamekeeper Danny Costessey for four years now. Danny’s love has brought him out of the shell he retreated into when his first lover died after the Great War. But this Christmas, visitors to the manor threaten their happiness. Philip’s young cousin Matthew is artistic, vivacious, and flirtatious: just the sort to remind him of his long-dead first love—and to emphasise the social gulf between Philip and Danny.
But the worst danger comes from much nearer home. An old flame of Danny’s is discovered in incriminating circumstances, forcing the lovers to keep their distance for fear of being tarred with the same brush. Meanwhile, Danny’s younger brother, Toby, has grown to resent the connection between his brother and the lord of the manor. Danny wants to do the right thing—but that could divide the lovers forever.
This sequel to Poacher’s Fall picks up four years after Philip and Danny became lovers. They’re a comfortable pair now, but they’re still careful and cautious in showing their affections lest someone other than Philip’s old and devoted servants realise the truth of the relationship between the landowner and his gamekeeper.
Danny lives in a cottage on the estate but still finds the time to check in with his widowed mother, his sisters, and his younger brother, Toby, who’s fourteen and makes a living as an under-gardener at the manor. Toby always seems angry and belligerent these days, and to Danny’s horror, much of Toby’s resentment stems from the fact that he knows that Danny and Philip are lovers. They’ve become the topic of village gossip, and Danny is afraid that Philip’s good name will be dragged through the mud. He tells Philip that they should stop seeing one another for a while.
Christmas is fast approaching, and Philip announces that he’s invited his cousin Frederick to come and stay for the festive season. As Philip has no intention of marrying, Frederick is his sole heir. Danny is puzzled by Philip’s reluctance to take a wife just for the purposes of getting an heir, but he’s also pleased he doesn’t have to share Philip. All the same, he’s uncertain about Frederick’s arrival.
Frederick brings with him his wife Millicent and her older sister Lucy, as well as his younger brother Matthew, who according to Frederick has fallen in with a bad crowd and needs straightening out. But from the moment Matthew sets foot in the manor, it’s clear he’s set his sights on Philip!
Meanwhile Danny is appalled to learn that Toby has got one of the upstairs maids pregnant—and worse, Toby runs off rather than face up to his responsibilities. When Danny sees Philip and Matthew together, he realises there’s only one thing he can do—even if it breaks his heart…
J.L. Merrow’s books are always engaging reads, and Keeper’s Pledge is no different. I enjoyed the first book in this duology (reviewed here), and I was happy to return to familiar characters and meet new ones.
Frederick is the epitome of a middle class bore, stolid and well meaning but lacking in perception. Matthew was delightful—at first rather affected and spoilt, but later on we see the real man behind all the pretensions and I became very fond of him (and I wouldn’t mind reading a spin-off about what happened to him!). I also really liked Lucy, who despite all the social pressures placed on her as a woman almost ‘on the shelf’, refuses to bend to what other people demand of her. She’s very forward—she even proposes to Philip!—but she’s still aware of how far she can go within the rules of society. I do wish we’d seen a little more of her, especially as she offered Philip a marriage of convenience, and though I admire Philip for sticking to his principles and refusing, part of me did want something more around their interactions.
As with the first book, Merrow plays with the freedoms and restrictions placed upon the different strata of social class. Philip’s urbane, genteel family contrast so well with Danny’s more rough and tumble family, and although both rich and poor are shown to indulge their uncertainties and fears, they also both have a sense of responsibility and honour, although the two classes go about things in a very different way.
A strong theme running throughout the book on both sides of the divide is the message to do what makes you happy, even if you run the risk of standing out. There are ways to be discreet, and if you can make compromises, there’s no reason to be alone or to bring suffering to others. Philip, being the oldest of the main cast at 35, knows this from experience; Toby, at only fourteen, is forced to learn the hard way after putting his family and his pregnant lover through shame and disappointment.
The theme of sacrifice is also very strong, and although Danny’s noble gesture is partially motivated by The Big Misunderstanding (which I found believable in this case, since the class divide at this point in time was huge and Danny is always aware of the differences between himself and Philip), it’s something that an honourable man would do in those circumstances and I found it realistic.
Danny’s voice is again superb, and although I enjoyed the scenes told in Philip’s POV, it’s really Danny’s POV that shines through and makes this such an engaging read. Recommended!