At the Christmas Wedding
At the Christmas Wedding is a collection of festive novellas by three of the biggest names in historical romance – Caroline Linden, Maya Rodale and Katharine Ashe. As with their previous anthology, At the Duke’s Wedding, the individual stories take place concurrently, this time at and around Kingstag Castle in Dorset, the site of a festive house party being hosted by the Duke and Duchess of Wessex. The three stories are perfect seasonal fare – warm, light-hearted and perfectly romantic, laced with humour, filled with likeable principals and served up with a soupçon of Yuletide cheer and festive frolic.
Map of a Lady’s Heart by Caroline Linden
Grade: B+ Sensuality: Warm
When the Duke and Duchess of Wessex are called away urgently just as their Christmas house party is about to start, it seems the bulk of the organisation and hostess duties will fall upon the shoulders of Viola Cavendish, the duchess’ personal secretary and a distant relation of the duke’s. Viola would not normally be expected to undertake such a duty, but the dowager duchess is indisposed, the duke’s eldest sister, Lady Serena, has recently suffered a broken engagement and neither lady is up to the task of supervising the arrangements. Viola is somewhat daunted by the enormity of the task, but doesn’t want the duchess to worry and assures her that she has everything in hand.
Wesley Morane, Earl of Winterton has inveigled himself an invitation to the Wessex’s house party in order to negotiate with the duke over the purchase of a valuable atlas that had belonged to Wes’ father and been sold in error following his death. He arrives at Kingstag accompanied by his young nephew, Viscount Newton, just ahead of a snowstorm that is likely to see them stuck there for a few days.
Viola is not a little displeased at the unexpected arrival of two gentlemen whose names aren’t on her guest list. But with the weather closing in, she has little alternative but to offer them hospitality until it is once again safe to travel. The blizzard also presents another problem for Viola, that of a house full of young ladies and gentlemen who will no doubt grow bored and restive at being trapped inside for days on end. Viola knows she is the only person at Kingstag with any hope of preventing mischief and scandal, and resigns herself to being an ever-present chaperone. But while young Newton is turning the heads of some of the ladies, Viola finds it increasingly difficult to ignore the attractions of his handsome uncle…
Ms. Linden develops the romance between Wes and Viola beautifully so that it doesn’t feel unnaturally hurried. They talk, exchange opinions and discover common interests and the air between them crackles with longing and attraction. I particularly liked the scene where they talk about the night sky; and Wes’ Christmas gift to Viola is one of those perfect ‘aww’ moments that a romance delivers every so often. Map of a Lady’s Heart is a wonderfully warm and sensual story and Ms. Linden does a terrific job of setting the scene for the other stories.
Hot Rogue on a Cold Night by Maya Rodale
Grade: B- Sensuality: Warm
Maya Rodale’s contribution to the anthology is full of her trademark humour, witty dialogue and slightly bonkers characters. When Lady Serena Cavendish was jilted by the Duke of Frye for no discernible reason, her mother, the dowager duchess, decided to throw a house party to which she has invited a number of young people in the hope of lifting Serena’s spirits. Being a canny woman, the dowager also invited Frye, in the hope that perhaps he and Serena will reconcile – but the trouble is she has also invited Frye’s insufferable best friend, Mr. Grayson Jones, who was overheard to have said that his friend ‘dodged a bullet’ when he decided not to marry Lady Serena, because she’s far too perfect to be interesting.
Unbeknownst to Serena, Greyson Jones – Grey – has been in love with her for years, but her long-standing engagement meant he never had any hopes of winning her. Now, however, he is determined to take his chance; he is shortly to accept a diplomatic posting to India, and has just a week in which to persuade Serena of the truth of his feelings and to get her to fall in love with him.
In the previous story, we were given a few glimpses of the ridiculous play being written for the guests to perform by Lady Bridget (who is no relation to the Bridget Cavendish of Ms. Rodale’s current series, Keeping Up with the Cavendishes). Here, rehearsals are in full swing, and the casting of Grey as the hero, Lord Pirate Captain, and Serena as his heroine, the Lonely Spinster, gives Grey the perfect opportunity to spend time with his lady love and start to woo her.
Hot Rogue on a Cold Night is funny and entertaining, and the chemistry between the central couple sizzles nicely. Grey is a delicious hero and I loved Aunt Sophronia, one of those wonderful grande dames of historical romance who get to say whatever they like and pat handsome gentlemen on the bottom without giving a fig for what anyone thinks of them! The whole thing did pass in a bit of a blur though – it felt rushed and the sex scene seemed to be there because it was expected rather than needed, but it’s a fun read overall.
Snowy Night with a Duke by Katharine Ashe
Grade: B+ Sensuality: Warm
Katharine Ashe is on fine form in the final story, in which we properly meet His Grace of Frye and discover the reason behind his broken engagement. He and his friend and colleague, Lord Fortier, do ‘odd jobs’ for the crown now and again, and as this story begins, are just arriving at the Fiddler’s Roost Inn near Kingstag, where they hope to apprehend a confidence trickster. The duke is travelling as plain Mr. Horace Church, but as he and Fortier set up their cover story by faking a brawl in the yard, he is unnerved to notice Miss Charlotte Ascot standing in the doorway. Not only has he been in love with her for ages, he thought she was in America, where she’s lived for the past two-and-a-half years.
In an anguish of unrequited love, Charlotte fled to America in an attempt to cure herself of her long-standing infatuation with the Duke of Frye. She has returned, not in hopes that he will at last return her feelings, but in order to comfort her friend Serena, and because she realises now that she carried her feelings with her when she ran and that instead, she must face them and learn to live with them.
The realisation that his friend, Greyson Jones, was in love with Serena Cavendish was as much at the root of Frye’s decision not to marry her as was the knowledge that he was himself in love with another woman. Charlotte Ascot has haunted his dreams for years, but Frye knows he can never marry her; can never marry anyone due to a mysterious condition which sometimes incapacitates him and which he fears will send him to an early grave like his father.
Ms. Ashe packs a lot of story into a short page count but it all works, culminating in a beautifully romantic declaration of love. Charlotte and Frye are superbly drawn characters and I enjoyed watching them bicker their way towards understanding the truth of their long-held feelings for one another. Snowy Night With a Duke is a charming, tender and passionate romance and a terrific way to round off this set of seasonal love stories.