Helena Fitzhugh understands perfectly well that she would be ruined should her secret love affair be discovered. So when a rendezvous goes wrong and she is about to be caught in the act, it is with the greatest reluctance that she accepts help from David Hillsborough, Viscount Hastings, and elopes with him to save her reputation.
Helena has despised David since they were children—the notorious rake has tormented her all her life. David, on the other hand, has always loved Helena, but his pride will never let him admit the secrets of his heart.
A carriage accident the day after their elopement, however, robs Helena of her memory—the slate is wiped clean. At last David dares to reveal his love, and she finds him both fascinating and desirable. But what will happen when her memory returns and she realizes she has fallen for a man she has sworn never to trust?
I thought this final book in the Fitzhugh trilogy was another winner from Sherry Thomas. She takes a couple of my favourite tropes – the marriage of convenience and the bickering couple who fall for each other – and puts a slightly different spin on them, especially on the latter.
David Hillsborough, Viscount Hastings and Helena Fitzhugh have appeared in the earlier two books in this trilogy – Beguiling the Beauty and Ravishing the Heiress, and spent all their appearances taking verbal pot-shots at each other and trading lethal barbs. But their banter is not the run-of-the-mill flirtatiousness with which many a hero and heroine thinly veil their mutual attraction – no, these verbal darts are tipped with poison and invariably find their mark, so that one could be forgiven for thinking that David and Helena really dislike each other.
In Helena’s case, that might not be far from the truth, but for David… well, he’s been in love with Helena since he was fourteen – but she hardly acknowledged his existence. So, David, in the manner of the addled, hormonally-charged teenaged boy, decided to make her notice him by playing practical jokes on her, behaving outrageously towards her, insulting her and, when they were older, making increasingly suggestive comments to her.
The problem is that while Hastings has grown up in all other respects, when it comes to Helena, he has never been able to progress beyond the metaphorical pigtail-pulling. Handsome, rich and otherwise urbane, he still behaves like that lovesick, teenaged boy whenever he is in Helena’s presence, and the only person in her entire family who has no idea of the reason for his behaviour is, of course, the lady herself.
Helena is on the verge of creating a massive scandal because of her involvement with a married man. She is in love with Andrew Martin, an author she has known for a number of years, and who passed up the opportunity to marry her five years previously in order to oblige his mother. Given Helena’s strong personality, it’s already obvious that Mr Martin is the wrong man for her; and it also becomes clear that she’s more in love with the man he used to be, and with the idea of love than she is in love with Mr Martin himself.
But because it’s Hastings warning her about the impropriety of her actions with relation to Martin, his warnings only serve to make Helena even more determined to pursue him. It also makes her reckless, so that she falls into a trap which has been set to catch the pair of them in flagrante delicto. Fortunately for Helena, some quick thinking on Hastings’ part foils the plan – but it also means that Helena is compromised and will have to marry him.
The problem is that their ‘merry war’ – which, unlike Beatrice and Benedick’s, is not so merry – is gaining momentum, every taunt and gibe getting more vicious, so that it seems impossible that they will ever be able to change their attitudes towards each other and make something of their marriage.
But everything changes when Helena is involved in an accident which results in memory loss. I have to admit that I rolled my eyes when I read the synopsis when the book first came out. It seemed that perhaps the author had written herself badly into a corner with David and Helena’s antagonism that it needed a melodramatic trick like this to enable her to get them out.
But then I remembered that this is Sherry Thomas, and that if anyone was going to be able to make such a contrivance work, it would be her.
And of course, I needn’t have worried.
Helena doesn’t forget everything, just most of the last decade or so, so that she is surprised to see her brother and sister as adults, and to discover that they are married. But she doesn’t remember David at all –all she knows is that she has woken to find an utterly gorgeous man sitting by her bed who identifies himself as her husband.
The thing I adored about this book can be summed up in one word. Hastings. He finally gets the chance to be himself around Helena, to show her the man he really is underneath the jeers and sneers. And what he really is is kind, thoughtful and loving.
And a similar thing is true for Helena. She is given the opportunity to see Hastings as he is, without the overlay of the years of poisonous sniping and dislike – and she likes what she sees very much indeed. Not only is her husband a devastatingly handsome man, he’s tender, charming and considerate, with a voice that could make the angels weep.
I thought it was a nice touch that we don’t really get a physical description of Hastings until Helena wakes up and is able to see him as if for the first time.
As Helena’s recovery progresses, she begins to regain pieces of her memory, so Hastings knows he’s essentially living on borrowed time. She will remember him and their prior relationship eventually, and anything they build together is likely to be snatched away without a moment’s notice. For me, that was the emotional centre of the novel – Hastings knowing that his second chance is likely to change nothing, but he decides to take it anyway, partly, because he wants to treat Helena in the way he feels she’s always deserved, and partly because he needs to do it for himself, to regain some of his self-respect.
With David never knowing how long he has left to spend with Helena in the way he’s always wanted, Ms Thomas does something unexpected – she has him confess the truth before she remembers it. He tells her he’s always loved her, but that never loved him, and that she has been in love with another man for years. Helena still recalls nothing of this, and can’t believe it, completely unable to reconcile what she has been told with the depth of her feelings for David.
”I’ve always loved you,” he said… “You know this.”
She swallowed a lump in her throat. “I only wonder whether I deserve such devotion.”
“Sometimes people fall in love with those who do not return the same strength of feelings. It is as it is,” he said with a quiet intensity. “What I give, I give freely. You owe me nothing, not love, not friendship, not even obligation.”
Of course, the expected happens and Helena regains her memory, accusing him of taking advantage of her, which pushes him back into his previously learned behaviour, the only way he can protect himself, and he lashes out. But David isn’t prepared to be that man again and finally lays aside the alter-ego that taunted Helena in favour of the man who has allowed himself to love openly.
There’s a lot to enjoy in this novel, as well as the central romance. I particularly liked the glimpses we were given of Fitz and Millie who, despite eight years of marriage, are finally getting to act like a pair of besotted newly-weds. Hasting’s relationship with his young daughter was warm and honest, and I always like an artistic hero, so the fact that he was also a writer and talented artist just added to his many attractions.
I have to agree with those reviewers who have said that Tempting the Bride isn’t as angsty as some of her other novels, but it still packs a real punch. Hastings’ is the greater emotional journey as he drops his defences and open himself up to the possibility of a rejection that would undoubtedly be complete and final. But even with that as a very real risk, he isn’t prepared to be less than honest with the woman he’s loved for so long. Helena is a hard character to like and root for, which made it all the better when she finally took a long hard look at herself and admits how selfish she has been and how her reckless behaviour could have impacted on others. The moment when she finally regained the missing fragments of her memory and realised exactly what she had in Hastings was truly affecting, and pretty much redeemed her for me.
Ultimately though, this is Hastings’ book and he’s an exceptional hero. He’s under no illusions about Helena, but he loves her anyway; he cares for an illegitimate child who has what we might identify today as Asperger’s or a form or Autism where others would simply have dumped her in a home; writes Helena a love-letter in the form of a novel (an admittedly smutty one) in which he bares his soul and says all the things he could never say in person; paints murals for her; writes and illustrates children’s stories… put like that, he sounds too good to be true, but in Ms Thomas’ hands, he’s flawed and beautifully human.