At First Spite
Grade : A

Olivia Dade’s At First Spite is the first in her new contemporary romance series Harlot’s Bay, named after the residence of the characters in Harlot’s Bay, Maryland. It’s a romantic comedy, but does deal with some pretty heavy emotional themes (the author prefaces the story with a content note). If a book can make me laugh, make me cry, and linger in my memory for days, it’s a winner and well deserving of a Desert Isle Keeper rating.

Athena Graydon thought her engagement to Johnny Vine and a move to Harlot’s Bay was going to be the first notch in climbing a ladder to a more stable and successful life. But overhearing Johnny’s brother Matthew tell Johnny that the engagement was a mistake, and Johnny’s subsequent dumping of her strikes a blow to her plans and her self-esteem. If only she hadn’t bought the tiny house - nicknamed the Spite House by local residents - that’s next to Johnny’s as an engagement gift for him with all her savings! The plans to combine the two houses into one are now irrevocably broken. Athena is stuck with the house as her own, and lo and behold if it doesn’t bring her right back in the vicinity of her nemesis Matthew, who, infuriatingly, lives across the alley facing her.

Job hunting in the local town leads to few prospects, though Athena does manage to get some temporary jobs. All the while she thinks and acts on ways to spite Matthew for his interference in her relationship with Johnny. What she doesn’t know is the reasoning behind Matthew’s actions and words, nor does she know to what lengths he is going behind her back in the attempt to try to make amends.

Matthew feels terrible about how Athena feels, even though he’s convinced that they would never have been a happy couple together so it was the right decision for Johnny to break up with her. He also feels guilty about his attraction to her, something that had started before he knew exactly who she was. Now it’s double the guilt, for ruining her life AND being attracted to his brother’s former fiancée. Gradually, thanks to their close proximity and Matthew’s kind and attentive manner, Athena is able to forgive him and friendship blooms, followed eventually by deeper feelings. But can Athena trust Matthew with her heart after having him break it once already?

This romance has several deeply emotional scenes that intersperse with the more comedic and funny moments. It’s clear early on that Matthew is grieving a loss that has affected him since he was a child. He is very protective of Johnny, having become a surrogate parent when their parents divorced, and as such, he’s always acted more in Johnny’s best interests rather than his own, leaving him frustrated, exhausted and lonely most of the time. The character reminded me of Martin in the author’s Teach Me (a top ten book of mine in 2019) – a really nice guy challenged by life’s often difficult circumstances. Having Athena across the alleyway from him is temptation and torture. But he goes out of his way to be friendly and pleasant to her in public and supportive in private, gradually winning her over to understanding that he really isn’t the bad guy she’s made him out to be. And maybe, just maybe, he might have been right that marriage to Johnny would have been a mistake.

By mid-point in the story, Athena’s thoughts and actions have slipped into something more serious than ‘the blues’ and Matthew’s concern for her as she goes missing from the public eye has him braving his own fears to check up on her. Athena is clinically depressed and the author does an admirable job of describing her condition, the circumstances leading up to and during the episode, and the hard work of pulling herself out of it with the help of therapy and Matthew’s attention. It’s heartwrenching and heartwarming all at once. But the end result is to put Athena on a better path, and one from which she can now see a future with Matthew and a chance to really put down roots in Harlot’s Bay.

The secondary characters are well-rounded and add those small town details one expects with a few exceptions – namely that the surly baker Karl likes monster erotica and listens to it in his bakery at full volume prior to opening hours, and that some of the residents have formed a Nasty Wenches book club that exclusively reads erotic romance. This definitely adds to the comedic parts of the story. The character growth of Athena, Matthew, and Johnny (who is away on the pre-planned and paid for (by Matthew) honeymoon trip without Athena when she moves into the Spite House but returns to Harlot’s Bay) is sometimes painful but believable and leads the way towards a satisfying happy ending for everyone. At First Spite is definitely a contender for my top ten list this year and is highly recommended. I eagerly await the next in the series!

Reviewed by Maria Rose
Grade : A

Sensuality: Warm

Review Date : February 24, 2024

Publication Date: 02/2024

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Maria Rose

I'm a biochemist and a married mother of two. Reading has been my hobby since grade school, and I've been a fan of the romance genre since I was a teenager. Sharing my love of good books by writing reviews is a recent passion of mine, but one which is richly rewarding.
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