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The trouble with lies is they have a tendency to catch a man out.
The last thing Hugh Standish, Earl of Fareham, wants is a wife. But since the only way to keep his mother’s matchmaking ways at bay is the promise of impending nuptials, Hugh takes the most logical action: he invents a fake fiancée.
It’s the perfect plan – until Hugh learns that his mother is on a ship bound for England to meet his ‘beloved’. He needs a solution fast, and when he collides with a mysterious beauty, he might just have found the answer to his prayers.
Minerva Merriwell is desperate for money to support her sisters, and although she knows that posing as the Earl’s fiancée might seem nonsensical, it’s just too good an offer to refuse.
As the Merriwells descend upon Hugh’s estate, the household is thrown into turmoil as everyone tries to keep their tangled stories straight. And with Hugh and Minerva’s romantic ruse turning into the real thing, is true love just one complication too many?
Virginia Heath has been one of my favourite authors of historical romance since I read her second book (Her Enemy at the Altar) for Mills & Boon/Harlequin back in 2016. Her stories are generally light-hearted and a lot of fun although not without a more serious side, her characters are well-rounded and engaging, her prose is crisp and the humour never feels forced. Never Fall for Your Fiancée, the first book in her new Merriwell Sisters trilogy, is her first book for St. Martin’s Press, and it bears all the hallmarks of her style – a gorgeous hero, an intelligent and snarky heroine who won’t put up with any crap, sparking dialogue and genuinely witty banter – although it’s a tad overlong and the chemistry between the two principals isn’t quite as compelling as I know she’s capable of delivering. The plot isn’t going to win any prizes for originality, but Ms. Heath makes good use of the fake-relationship trope and her bright and breezy writing style carries the day.
Hugh Standish, Earl of Fareham, is in a bit of a bind. His mother, who lives in Boston with her second husband, is on her way to England for a visit expressly to meet Hugh’s fiancée Minerva, the young woman to whom he’s been engaged for the past two years. The problem? Minerva is entirely a product of Hugh’s imagination, invented in order to head off his mother’s constant reminders that he should get married and her offer (which Hugh saw more as a threat) to come home to help him find a bride. Hugh adores his mother, but he is absolutely convinced that a man should only enter into a marriage when he had every intention of honouring his vows, and being sure he isn’t capable of either love or fidelity, he has decided to eschew matrimony. But his mother’s arrival is imminent, and the idea of telling her the truth weighs heavily. He never, ever wanted to hurt her and, if he’s honest with himself (which he tries hard not to be too often), he also wants to avoid admitting to her that he’s far too much like his late father to consider settling down.
Minerva Merriwell has been the family caretaker since their mother died when Minerva was nine, and has been solely responsible for her younger sisters Diana and Vee (short for Venus) since their good-for-nothing father abandoned them when she was nineteen. Now twenty-four, Minerva ekes out a living as an engraver but it’s a hand-to-mouth existence and her worries are never-ending. Today’s is that one of the people she’s produced work for is four weeks late with payment; she’s confronted him outside his house to request – politely – that he pay her right away and things are deteriorating when a gentleman steps in and offers his assistance. The bluster displayed by Minerva’s ‘employer’ can’t hold up in the face of the stranger’s aristocratic hauteur; the debt is settled and the gentleman offers to escort her home.
Hugh can’t believe his good fortune. Not only does this young woman share the name of his fake fiancée, she’s entirely captivating – beautiful, witty and self-assured – and on the spot, he decides the answer to his problem is right in front of him. He’ll pay Minerva to act as his fiancée, and then engineer some sort of falling-out that will end their ‘engagement’. But he’s surprised when Minerva expresses reservations. It’s clear she needs the money he’s offering, but she’s not happy about the idea of practicing such a deception; the Merriwells may be on the cusp of destitution, but they had morals.
Well, of course Minerva does agree and she – with Diana and Vee, who are as unhappy about the scheme as Minerva is – travel to Hugh’s Hampshire estate to await the arrival of his mother and to learn their roles while they wait. Unfortunately, however, Hugh’s mother and step-father arrive much earlier than expected – well before Minerva has acquired enough ‘polish’ – which necessitates some more impromptu, highly creative falsehoods on Hugh’s part. The story moves fairly briskly, the central characters are likeable and the humour is dry and nicely observed, but around the middle, it gets a bit bogged down and some of the contortions Hugh has to make in order to perpetuate his lies get a bit overly convoluted, and I sometimes felt as though I was in the middle of a French farce. Perhaps that was the intention, but although I’ve said that the humour in Ms. Heath’s books isn’t forced, it comes close a few times here.
Minerva is a great heroine, a young woman forced to become a parent when she wasn’t much more than a child herself and who puts her own wants and needs last every time. She’s intelligent, witty, generous and determined, but she’s grown so used to being her sisters’ sole support that she has sort of lost sight of the fact that they’re young women now, and should be taking responsibility for themselves. I liked Hugh a lot, with some caveats. He’s charming, funny, perceptive and caring, but he goes out of his way to act the indolent wastrel (not that we ever see that on the page) when he is in fact a conscientious landowner and employer, and an all-round decent man. It doesn’t take Minerva long to work out that there’s a lot more to him than meets the eye, but what she can’t work out is why he’s so set on letting everyone around him believe he’s shallow, selfish and lazy. (And quite honestly, neither could I.) BUT – and here are the caveats. Firstly, he is convinced he’s bad husband material because the Standish Blood Runs In His Veins; his grandfather was a rotten bastard, his father was unfaithful to his mother, and Hugh isn’t going to visit heartbreak upon any woman – like his cheating sire and grandfather before him, he isn’t capable of love or commitment. This is stated so very often that I felt I was being hit over the head with it; I lost track of how many times the “bad blood” or the “Standish way” or the philandering grandfather and father were mentioned. A grown man of thirty-two is responsible for his own behaviour, and Hugh was perfectly capable of steering his own course. And then there’s the deception. As Minerva says – “What sort of man invents a fiancée because he finds responsibility too daunting and is frightened of his own mother?” And that says it all, really.
There’s a small but well-drawn supporting cast. Hugh’s mother is a delightful woman who obviously thinks the world of him and just wants him to be happy, Payne, the butler is a nineteenth century Jeeves –an expert in the pithy bon mot – and I liked Hugh’s friend Giles, who I’m assuming will be the hero of a future book in the series. I liked the middle sister, Diana, who is lively and forthright (and there are definite sparks between her and Giles) although Vee is… well, a bit of a wet blanket, honestly. She’s still convinced their dead-beat dad is going to come back and won’t hear a word against him, and she presents a number of problems for Hugh’s scheme.
That said, Never Fall for Your Fiancée is fluff of the highest quality, and if you’re looking for a well-written, funny historical rom-com with some shrewd observation on the side, it might be just what you’re looking for. But I can’t recommend it unreservedly, because much as I liked Hugh, I didn’t buy the reasons for his ‘I am not worthy’ act and all the miscommunication and misinterpretation became a bit wearing. I like the fake-relationship trope, and I like Ms. Heath’s writing, but this one didn’t quite tick all the boxes for me.