Viscount’s Wager is the third book in Ava March’s Gambling on Love series, but even though characters from earlier books appear in it, I don’t think it’s essential to have read them to understand this one. It’s a well-told and engaging story and I enjoyed reading it, but the pacing around the middle of the book drags somewhat and the big secret being kept by one of the protagonists is allowed to go on for a bit too long, which caused me to lower my final grade a little.
Seven years after they shared a memorable moonlight kiss, Gabriel Tilden and Anthony, Viscount Rawling run into each other at a musicale. Six months a widower, Gabriel has come to London for the first time since his marriage, desperate to distract himself from the guilt he feels over his wife’s death.
Anthony has been in love with Gabriel ever since he was sixteen, and was heartbroken when, just the day after their kiss, he witnessed Gabriel in a passionate embrace with the young woman he was eventually to marry. But he put that behind him and has since made himself a life he enjoys, even though his attitude towards the management of his estates is rather lax – for reasons that eagle-eyed readers will probably work out before they are revealed. Comfortable with his sexual preferences, Anthony knows he will never find happiness within marriage and, having grown up with parents who loved each other deeply, knows that is the sort of relationship he wants for himself – but with a man. He is good-natured and open-hearted, and even though he has never forgotten Gabriel, he has resigned himself to the fact that he probably wasn’t “the one”.
Their unexpected encounter brings back all those old feelings and memories. Anthony finds himself just as deeply attracted to Gabriel as he ever was, and just as keen to find out if Gabriel is interested in more than friendship. But he quickly recognises that Gabriel is just as emotionally reticent as he ever was, and that he is going to have to tread very carefully if they are ever to have the life together that Anthony firmly believes could be theirs.
Gabriel is a walking bundle of guilt. He feels guilty for hurting Anthony all those years ago and because he is not entirely at ease with the fact that he was so attracted to him in the first place. He was more or less forced into marriage, although he and his wife did become friends during their years together; but he never loved her and hates himself for the relief he felt after her death. He has come to London seeking distraction, which he finds at the gambling tables – but he is not a wealthy man and before long, he finds himself in desperate straits.
Anthony very carefully starts to coax Gabriel out of his shell, seeking him out when he can but not too obviously, teasing him, introducing him to the delights of late night walks in Hyde Park and makes it clear that he would like to pick up where they left off all those years ago. Eventually, Gabriel takes Anthony up on his offer, and the two become lovers – but even then, Gabriel can’t let go of his intense guilt over the past and the feeling that he doesn’t deserve to be loved or happy.
At this stage, the relationship between Gabriel and Anthony is fraught with things unsaid, and before long, Anthony realises that his lover is using sex as a diversion – both from his own problems and from talking them out with Anthony. It’s well written, but Gabriel’s insistence on running away from the relationship and then denying himself Anthony’s company – and bed – for days on end as a penance goes on for too long, and thus the middle part of the book is somewhat bogged down in the pattern of hot sex followed by guilt and denial, during which Gabriel continues to dig a deeper and deeper hole for himself at the gaming tables.
I didn’t much care for the fact that Gabriel used Anthony for sex and then ran out on him, only to be unable to keep away and then repeat the same pattern over and over. Anthony is such a forgiving, loving man, and by the half-way point, I felt he deserved better than someone who used him and felt guilty for being with him. Fortunately, however, Anthony eventually faces up to the fact that Gabriel is not going to change his behaviour unless he is challenged and this, together with Gabriel’s realisation that he is in way over his head as regards his debts, eventually leads to a confrontation and a new honesty between them.
The ending is a little predictable and, surprisingly, a little heavy on the mush for my taste, but in spite of my reservations, Viscount’s Wager is still a book I’d recommend to anyone looking for a male/male historical that retains a strong sense of period. Ava March has the knack of writing hot sex scenes that are sensual and erotic without being crude, and in which the characters are clearly emotionally invested – even if they don’t themselves quite know what those emotions are! The central relationship has a sense of realism about it because it’s messy and has to be worked at; and both characters are well-drawn, with Anthony being the star-turn. Even though there were times I didn’t like Gabriel all that much, I was so taken with Anthony that I wanted him to have what would make him happy. Once Gabriel has received his wake-up call and the pair starts to work as a partnership, the complementary elements of their disparate natures start to work for them, which enables the reader to see Gabriel in an entirely new light and to believe that perhaps he is the man to make Anthony happy after all.