Her Enemy at the Altar
This is the second book from new-to-me author Virginia Heath, whose début for Mills and Boon – That Despicable Rogue – was published in May this year, and which I somehow missed but definitely intend to go back to. Her Enemy at the Altar is a simple but well-written enemies-to-lovers story inspired, she says in her author’s note, by the time her daughter came home from school upset because her handprints/footprints were bigger than those of all her classmates.
Lady Constance Stuart, daughter of the Earl of Redbridge, is too tall, her hair is too red, her figure is too straight, her tongue is too sharp and her mind too apt to form opinions of its own. Cruelly nicknamed “the ginger Amazonian” in her first season, she is still unmarried five years later and is widely regarded as a bit of a joke throughout the ton. Even her own father thinks she is useless if he can’t marry her off for his own gain. Over the years, Constance has developed a defence mechanism to cover her insecurities and the continual hurt and humiliation she suffers, with the result that most in society now gives her a wide berth, fearing to come within striking distance of her withering sarcasm and haughty demeanour.
The only man who doesn’t seem to care about earning her censure is Aaron Wincanton, son and heir to Viscount Ardleigh, whose estate borders that of the earl. The Wincantons and the Stuarts despise each other and have been at each other’s throats for the past three hundred years; and the viscount and the earl are continually attempting to best each other in whatever way they can. Recently returned from the war in Spain, Aaron realises his father’s estate is not being well-run and knows that before long, they are going to be bankrupt. He is courting an heiress whose dowry will go a long way towards solving the family’s financial problems, but Aaron knows that if things are to improve, he must find a way of ending the enmity between his family and the Stuarts, as his father is only too ready to throw money away if he thinks it will gain him the upper hand.
Constance’s father has recently engineered her betrothal to a handsome, impoverished, marquess; and while she knows he doesn’t love her, she can’t help hoping that perhaps, one day, that will change. But when he wastes no time in making clear to her that all he wants from her is money, Constance is hurt at his bluntness even though, she tells herself, it’s not surprising that he doesn’t want her – what man would, with her horribly vibrant hair and gangly, unfashionably tall body?
Aaron and Constance don’t like each other, although Aaron can’t deny that he likes teasing her and watching her temper fire up. But when he finds her, alone, desolate and hiding away during a ball, it’s not temper that fires up between them. What begins as an attempt at consolation explodes into an almost uncontrollable passion that lands them both into hot water when they are discovered in an extremely compromising position.
Aaron is left with little alternative but to offer for Connie’s hand, but just to make life extra uncomfortable – because he is a Wincanton – her father withholds her dowry and makes it clear that Connie is no longer welcome in his house. She tries to refuse the match, but the earl gives her an incredibly cruel ultimatum threatening her mother and younger brother and she has no alternative but to agree.
Ms. Heath does a very good job of describing the uncomfortable relationship between these two people whose families have been at loggerheads for years. Aaron thinks he might as well make the best of things – he’s attracted to Connie and wants to see if he can rouse her to more than passionate kisses – and tries to make his new wife comfortable and to show her courtesy and consideration, but it is all thrown back in his face. So, with bigger problems concerning the estate to occupy him, Aaron distances himself, leaving his bride to ponder a future with a man she despises and who despises her, and without the comfort and support of her family. She and Aaron agree to seek an annulment, but even then, Connie will not be able to return home; the best she can hope for is to change her name, go far away and try to find employment to support herself.
As time passes, Aaron and Connie begin to thaw a little towards each other. Having previously had no interest in estate management and then been away in the army, Aaron is struggling to work out how to turn things around, and is surprised and impressed at the way his wife is able to understand the salient details and work with numbers. And Connie realises that she has been so wrapped up in her own thoughts and negative emotions that she has failed to realise how much strain Aaron is under; not only because of his financial problems, but also because of his father’s failing health.
Their gradual rapprochement is well done, the growing physical attraction between them being complemented by their increasing understanding of each other. There’s strong chemistry between them from the start, and Ms. Heath keeps it bubbling nicely beneath the surface, building it skilfully so that when the couple finally consummates their marriage, it feels like the natural culmination of everything they’ve been through rather than just a casually dropped in sex scene because it’s time for one.
The author’s presentation of Connie’s low self-esteem and the methods of self-protection she has adopted are spot on. Anyone who has been called names will know that the development of a thick skin is absolutely necessary, and then you show the bullies that you don’t care and develop ways of getting your own back. But deep down, it hurts and it sticks – and that aspect of Connie’s character rings completely true. I was also grateful that Ms. Heath didn’t fall into the trap of having the characters believe that non-consummation of a marriage was grounds for an annulment, a common mistake in many historical romances.
There are a couple of small sub-plots which work well within the context of the larger story, and Ms. Heath writes with warmth, humour and intelligence, putting her own stamp on a couple of well-used tropes. I spotted a few incorrect word choices and the odd turn of phrase that wasn’t quite right, but overall Her Enemy at the Altar is an enjoyable romance and one I’d certainly suggest is worth your consideration if you’re looking to try an author new to the genre.