Note: A Christmas to Remember is a collection of four Christmas-themed novellas that have been previously published elsewhere.
Anthologies are, by their very nature, a mixed bag, and I usually find they consist of perhaps one excellent story, one poor one and a couple in between. In the case of A Christmas to Remember, however, while there is one poor story (the last) the quality of the others is fairly consistent in that the grades all fall within the mid-range, but that does mean that the anthology as a whole lacks that one outstanding tale that makes the whole thing worth the price of admission.
I Will by Lisa Kleypas
Grade: C Sensuality: Warm
When I started reading I Will, I immediately thought – “this is the one. This is going to be the best of the bunch” – and that thought stayed with me for around the first half of the novella. It’s a classic bluestocking-meets-rake story in which our hero, Lord Andrew Drake (legitimate half-brother of Logan Scott from Because You’re Mine), an unrepentant rake, needs to convince his terminally ill father that he is a reformed character in order to inherit the family fortune and intends to do so by pretending to be betrothed to a thoroughly unobjectionable and respectable young woman. Andrew, whose relationship with his father has always been strained and who has no intention of reforming once he inherits, approaches Lady Caroline Hargreaves, the sister of one of his friends, and pretty much blackmails her into agreeing to become his fake fiancée.
Caroline has never liked Andrew and likes him even less now because he is leading her brother into bad company and habits; Andrew has never liked Caroline because she is opinionated and starchy and not at all his type. Yet as he starts to really look at her during their discussion, he starts to see things about her he’s never noticed before and to realise, to his shock, that he desires her.
The novella comes in at just under a hundred pages, but the events within span a few weeks during which Andrew eschews his normal rounds of drinking and depravity so as to make his performance as a reformed character more convincing. I really liked the way that Caroline comes to see the real Andrew beneath the rakish façade and how the strength of her belief touches Andrew and gives him the confidence he needs to be able to reform in truth, but unfortunately, it’s not long after this that things take a very different direction and the whole thing falls apart. There’s an extremely awkward sex-scene (which comes very close to being non-consensual – on his part, not hers) and a hurried and somewhat silly blackmail plot which I could have done without. I Will stars very promisingly, but ends up as a bit of a mess.
Deck the Halls with Love by Lorraine Heath
Grade: B- Sensuality: Warm
This novella is book 2.5 in the Lost Lords of Pembrook series and tells the story of Alastair, the Marquess of Chetwyn, who was betrothed to Lady Anne, heroine of Lord of Temptation. Upon realising his betrothed was in love with someone else, Chetwyn released her from their engagement, and now, he is intent on pursuing the woman he has always loved. The problem is that she is due to marry another man just after Christmas, so Chetwyn is facing an uphill struggle if he is to convince her that he is – they are – worthy of a second chance.
A year or so earlier, Lady Meredith Hargreaves (no relation to Caroline, above!) had been on the verge of falling in love with Alastair Wakefield when he turned his attention to another lady. Meredith told herself – or tried to – that she had had a lucky escape and that it was as well his defection had happened before she could fall for him completely. She is now happily engaged to be married, although she can’t deny that her intended has never made her pulse race or her stomach flutter. Still, it’s a good match, and no matter that seeing Chetwyn again has churned up all her emotions, she can’t afford to be charmed by him all over again.
Chetwyn is in deadly earnest over his pursuit of Meredith, but he’s not pushy or possessive; in fact what he wants is for her to be able to follow her heart and choose freely. There’s a nice frisson of sexual tension between the pair and the fact that they share a romantic history means that their rekindled relationship doesn’t feel quite so rushed as it could have done. Deck the Halls with Love is a charming story, and while it’s the shortest in the collection, it’s the one I enjoyed the most.
No Groom at the Inn by Megan Frampton
Grade: C+ Sensuality: Warm
Here we have another fake-betrothal story, this time between an earl’s daughter and a gentleman desperate to avoid his mother’s matchmaking schemes. Lady Sophronia Bettesford has been left almost destitute by her late father, who cared far more for his books and his studies than for anything remotely practical such as making sure his daughter was provided for after his death. No longer able to support herself, all she has to look forward to is a life of drudgery living with a distant cousin – which is why, when a strikingly handsome stranger asks her to marry him – or at least, to pretend to be engaged to him – she doesn’t immediately dismiss him as some sort of madman. When he offers to buy her a cottage –an attractive alternative to living with her cousins, their children and their chickens – Sophronia agrees to a month-long pretend engagement.
James Archer sounds to me like he has a serious case of ADHD! He can hardly sit still and dislikes remaining in one place for any length of time, spending most of his life travelling and collecting, buying and selling the artefacts (or “arty facts” as his mother calls them) he finds on his travels. His mother loves him dearly and he loves her; he doesn’t want to settle down but can’t face telling her so, hence his need for a fake fiancée who can accompany him to an upcoming house party he has learned will be comprised mostly of young, eligible females. I have to say that I wasn’t wild about the deception being practiced upon James’ mother, who really didn’t deserve it, and his initial exit-strategy is just plain dumb.
The attraction between James and Sophronia is built well considering the limits imposed by the page-count, and I liked the way their characters are shown to balance each other. James yearns to get away – which makes sense given his family history – while Sophronia wants to settle somewhere quiet and peaceful, yet both of them start to wonder if, perhaps, there is something to the other’s lifestyle. James wonders if perhaps, with someone like Sophy at his side, he could be content to wander less, while she thinks that perhaps mouldering away in a remote cottage for the rest of her life without love isn’t perhaps all it’s cracked up to be.
No Groom at the Inn is a light-hearted, easy read, although I found it difficult to connect with the characters. Ms. Frampton is an accomplished writer and I’ve read and enjoyed a number of her other books, but the humour in this often felt forced and at times, the heroine’s internal monologues waffled on too long.
The Duke’s Christmas Wish by Vivienne Lorret
Grade: D Sensuality: Kisses
The weakest story in the anthology features a scientifically minded duke who has invented a formula for creating successful marriages (or so he thinks) and a young woman who thinks he should marry her best friend in order to help her to secure her inheritance. After having spent most of the first chapter reading about how the heroine (Ivy) was desperate to pee owing to having imbibed one too many cups of tea, and then spent the next two chapters watching the duke and Ivy desperately avoiding each other because of the confusing emotions they each evoked in the other, I was bored and probably wouldn’t have continued reading had this not been the final novella and if I hadn’t been reviewing it. Our hero is sweet if somewhat clueless, but ultimately both central characters are bland, there is no chemistry between them whatsoever and though the writing is decent, not having your principals interact for three chapters out of ten is a bad move.
I don’t read a great many anthologies as I find that the majority of novellas I’ve read have tended to be fairly average, but they’re useful for those times you’re busy and want to read something that satisfies the appetite for an HEA when you don’t have time to commit to a full-length novel. A Christmas to Remember is actually fairly un-memorable, but if you’re in a forgiving mood, it delivers a quick romance-fix with a nice side order of Festive spirit thrown in for good measure.
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