A Date at the Altar
If you know nothing else about me, you should know I very rarely read books out of sequence. When I’m assigned a book to review and it’s number two or three in a series, whenever possible, I seek out earlier books and read them in advance. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the opportunity to read the first two novels in the Marrying the Duke series, and while I don’t think it’s necessary to have read them, it would probably have helped, as the main character in A Date at the Altar (Gavin Whitridge, Duke of Baynton) was jilted twice, and those books feature the ladies who rejected him.
A Date at the Altar starts out promisingly. A sold out theatre audience (of mostly men) is waiting for the mysterious ‘Siren’ to appear. Years ago, the Siren sang on stage in one memorable appearance, and then never performed again despite pressure for her to appear. Her beauty has become the stuff of legend, though no one has ever discovered who she was. We learn that she is Sarah Pettijohn, a struggling playwright. She only appeared as the Siren the first time because she was poor and desperate; this time, she’s agreed to appear in exchange for the theatre owners staging one of her plays. The theatre is sold out and the audience is eager to see her again.
Disguised by a wig and heavy make-up, Sarah doesn’t worry that anyone will recognize her. While waiting for her cue, Sarah scans the audience and spots Gavin Whitridge, the Duke of Baynton, in one of the boxes. Sarah and Baynton met in The Fairest of Them All, when Sarah’s niece, Lady Charlene Blanchard, threw Gavin over in favour of his brother. When Sarah spots Baynton, she’s reminded of his derogatory comments about the theatre, and that she doesn’t like him (though he is handsome). Mentally labeling him a liar and hypocrite, she decides to dedicate her performance to him and make him uncomfortable.
Gavin Whitridge hates the theatre. He’s only come tonight to keep an eye on his close friend Rovington, and to see for himself if rumors about Rovington’s addiction to gambling are true. Baynton is disgusted to learn that not only are the rumors true, but that his friend has wagered heavily that he’ll not only unmask the mysterious Siren, he’ll be the first to bed her. Baynton is on the verge of leaving the theatre and escaping his drunken companions, when the Siren appears swinging from a rope and he can’t look away. Much like the other men in the audience, Baynton falls hard for the mysterious songstress – but when she turns her gaze his way and stares at him, he’s shocked to realize he recognizes her. The audience is mesmerized by her voice and her beauty, Baynton is distracted, and then Rovington jumps on stage and tries to grab her. The theatre erupts in chaos and Sarah only barely manages to get away. When she finally decides to come out of her hiding spot, she’s nearly caught again before she’s saved by the last person she ever expected to come to her aide, the Duke of Baynton.
The rest of A Date at the Altar sees both Baynton and Sarah discover that many of the assumptions they made about each other are wrong. They resist their mutual attraction for very different reasons, though Baynton’s is perhaps the most surprising. Baynton realizes early on that he’s attracted to Sarah and wants to bed her, but Sarah, formerly married to an abusive husband and fiercely independent, resists his advances. Rovington, desperate to win the bet or be ruined, tries to take Sarah by force and is stopped only after Baynton offers her his protection; unable to resist his feelings for Sarah, he also offers her carte blanche as his mistress. Sarah refuses his offer, but she’s forced to reconsider after the theatre owners abscond with the profits from the show and her landlord kicks her out.
The lead up to the romantic, physical and emotional relationship between Baynton and Sarah is engaging, and Baynton’s desperate desire for her is palpable. Unfortunately, once Sarah gives in and agrees to become his mistress, Ms. Maxwell loses her way. All the qualities that Baynton loved about Sarah – her fierceness, her independence, her honesty – are subsumed into her relationship with the duke. Finally staging her own play, and all the work that she devotes to it, takes a backseat to the torment Sarah feels about agreeing to become Baynton’s mistress and then falling in love with him.
Baynton, once a stiff and formal man who barely made time for friends or family, is transformed by his love for Sarah. Once they begin sleeping together, he spends every free moment he has with her. He runs lines with her for the show, fights a duel in her honor, contemplates defying his duty to marry a suitable women and produce an heir (Sarah isn’t suitable and she’s barren) – he even ends up performing in Sarah’s play. I’m not saying I didn’t like him, but I struggled to reconcile the duke I met at the beginning of the novel with the man he becomes once he rescues Sarah from Rovington. Though it’s moving to see how deeply Baynton’s love for Sarah affects him – and the lengths he’s willing to go to be with her – it all reads as a bit too good to be true. I was rooting for him – and for them – but Sarah remains an enigma, and Baynton transforms into a completely different character.
I might have been inclined to review this book more favorably had Ms. Maxwell focused the narrative on the relationship between Baynton and Sarah. Unfortunately, clunky PoVs, and a frantic piling on of additional storylines – Rovington’s wife appears in a completely absurd scene, Rovington makes one last evil attempt to get even with Sarah for ruining him (which is only resolved after he’s felled by a flying wooden sword), an ending that somehow finds the newly married Baynton ‘lucking’ into three orphaned children – ruin the second half of this book. None of these storylines add any depth or context to the story and frankly, they were horribly distracting.
A Date at the Altar isn’t terrible, but it wasn’t all that good either. The narrative loses focus mid-way through, and the main characters never fully develop into the roles Ms. Maxwell envisions for them. I can’t recommend it.