Lily Maxton gets her new series The Townsends off to a great start with the first book, Enchanting the Earl, a sweetly sensual character-driven romance set in a remote castle in the Scottish Highlands in 1812. It’s a short but charming enemies-to-lovers story in which the author skilfully balances the angst of the damaged hero with gentle humour and loving, familial relationships and brings a real depth to the characterisation of the principals and secondary cast.
A former soldier, Theo Townsend never expected to inherit an earldom or an ancestral pile in Scotland. Returned from fighting on the Peninsula damaged both mentally and physically, the newly minted Earl of Arden decides that the remoteness of Llynmore Castle will suit him admirably, affording him the opportunity to live in quiet solitude for the foreseeable future. To his annoyance however, his brother and sisters have other ideas, and insist on accompanying him to see their new home which, Theo reflects, is at least big enough for him to be able to keep to himself and out of their way.
On arrival, Theo is further annoyed to discover that the castle is not, as he’d been led to believe, uninhabited. In the courtyard, a striking but dishevelled young woman who is attempting to rescue a cat from a tree, introduces herself as Annabel Lockhart, and informs them that she resides there with her aunt, the widow of the previous earl’s brother.
Theo makes it immediately clear that he expects the ladies to leave, and says that he will have his solicitor find them somewhere else to live at the earliest opportunity. Annabel is furious at his arrogant high-handedness and dismayed at the prospect of having to leave the only real home and family she has ever known. Orphaned as a child, she had been passed from relative to relative, most of whom took little notice of her and put her to work until one day she decided to seek out the scandalous aunt she had heard of over the years. Travelling to Llynmore Castle, Annabel expected another rejection – but it never came. Her aunt accepted her just as she was and the two of them have lived there contentedly ever since.
The sudden appearance of Theo and his family is a problem for more reasons than one, however. Not long before the Townsends show up, Annabel’s sister, Fiona arrived unexpectedly with her four-year-old daughter, having run away from her abusive husband. Annabel daren’t let anyone know her sister is there, and with four complete strangers in the castle, it’s imperative Fiona and Mary stay well hidden. Annabel doesn’t think it will be too difficult to get rid of the earl and his family, but has to change her mind quite soon when it becomes clear that Theo has no intention of leaving, and her various strategems (some quite funny and others downright silly) fail to work.
Theo and Annabel strike sparks off each other from the get-go, even though they dislike each other intensely. She thinks he’s arrogant (but handsome); he thinks she’s a hoyden who will be a bad influence on his sisters, and yet can’t fail to admire – and perhaps even envy – her zest for life and her outgoing, fearless nature.
As the days pass, Annabel begins to realise that Theo is not quite as cold and arrogant as she had thought. She has already noticed that he’s an attractive man and has been annoyed at herself for feeling a strong, visceral pull towards him; but as they begin to unbend a little towards one another it’s clear to them both that they are in the grip of a strong mutual attraction. The author does a fabulous job of building the romantic tension between Annabel and Theo; their first kiss is electrifying and the longing they feel for each other is palpable.
Annabel is easy to warm to, a generous free spirit who has at last found somewhere she feels loved and valued. I loved how honest she was with Theo and that she was prepared to give him her trust – something that doesn’t come easily to her – and ask for his help when she needs it. And Theo doesn’t disappoint, showing the honourable, loving man that lies beneath the scars and the gruff exterior. But even though he has fallen hard for Annabel, he is guarded and closed off, fearful of allowing anyone to get close to him because he knows he’s broken; he’s not always certain of his sanity and is terrified of infecting those closest to him with the ugliness of his memories. His siblings adore him, and realise he’s trying to push them away, but they don’t know how to reach or help him.
Theo lost a leg and much of himself during the war, and while he copes well physically, mentally he’s a mess. Ms. Maxton details his PTSD with insight and understanding; his nightmares, his almost crippling reaction to loud noises or to things that trigger bad memories, and his belief that he has nothing to offer and is not worthy of love. And because she understands that particular insecurity all too well, Annabel knows that the only person who can convince Theo to accept the love she offers him is himself.
Enchanting the Earl is a beautifully written love story between two people who haven’t had it easy. Annabel has been able to (mostly) overcome her insecurities thanks to the love and acceptance she found with her aunt whereas Theo has yet to allow himself those things and to realise that he does deserve healing and happiness. The fact that Annabel is wise enough to see that he has to want to get better is key, and I applaud Ms. Maxton for showing that. It’s so easy, in these types of stories, to have the damaged character redeemed by love, but it doesn’t necessarily work that way, and in any case, I never feel as though as change for someone else is going to be a permanent one. Change always has to come from within.
The secondary plotline concerning Annabel’s sister is well-executed and, sadly, quite believable, and while Theo’s brothers and sisters only play supporting roles, they are likeable and the familial relationships are very well written. Enchanting the Earl is highly recommended and I’ll definitely be looking out for the other books in the series.
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