The Winter Companion
After reading good reviews of Mimi Matthews’ books on AAR, I decided to give a couple of her Christmas romances a try, and I began with The Winter Companion, the fourth in her Parish Orphans of Devon series. While this was a pleasant read with some aspects I liked, it will probably appeal more to fans of the series than readers picking up a Matthews book for the first time.
Clara Hartwright works as a lady’s companion so that she can pay for her younger brother’s education at Cambridge. Thankfully she’s not too self-sacrificing about this, since she struck a bargain with her brother – she will fund his education, and he will send her write-ups of his lectures, meaning she’ll have a chance to learn something too. But his most recent letter was a copy of a lesson she’s already received, and he doesn’t seem inclined to write as often either. On top of that, Clara has to take care of an elderly pug she inherited from a previous employer, so when she arrives at Greyfriars Abbey in North Devon, she’s hoping the poor dog won’t be overwhelmed by any animals already in residence there.
The first person she meets is Neville Cross, one of four friends who grew up as orphans in the parish together. Neville is tall, attractive and unfailingly kind to animals. But thanks to a head injury he sustained some time earlier, he finds it difficult to speak easily, and this has made him reclusive and unsure of himself. Like Clara, though, he understands what it’s like to be overlooked, to be thought of as lesser than other people. She discovered she can trust him with her dog, and he shows her an abused and pregnant Dartmoor pony he’s saved and keeps in the stables.
Meanwhile, all the other happy couples of the series prepare to celebrate Christmas together, and even Clara’s employer enjoys a romance with another guest. But although Clara and Neville grow closer, both of them are stifled in some ways. Clara has to deal with both her obligation to her brother (and his utter ingratitude towards her is a heartbreaking discovery) and with a scandal in her past (though the reveal was much less scandalous than I’d expected). Neville has to come out of his shell and follow his dream of owning a farm where he can raise horses.
I found them both likeable characters, but something about the romance falls short. Clara and Neville have challenges to face, but none of those problems stem from their own personalities – they’re both kind, honorable, intelligent and loyal. I like it when the hero and heroine banter or have charged conversations, but that wasn’t an option here. Though when Neville writes Clara a letter, he’s both articulate and emotional, and I wish the author had done more in this regard. This is also a no-sex-on-page romance, which I would have regretted if I’d been feeling more chemistry between the leads.
That said, the setting is wonderfully drawn and the atmosphere feels authentically Christmassy. Ultimately, The Winter Companion is a gentle, low-key story about two people who get along very well together, and if that’s what you’re looking for, or if you’ve read the rest of the books in the series, you won’t want to miss it. But for newcomers to Mimi Matthews’ work, or for readers who like a little more edge in their romances, I’d recommend either the first in this series or her novel The Work of Art.