Why aren’t there more vicars in romance? After meeting Walter Langston, new vicar for a tiny coastal village in Cumbria, England in 1803, I have no idea. Barbosa’s self-published novella, Hot Under the Collar (110 pages; Click here for an excerpt and buying info), is an unusual romance, featuring as it does a third son and a heroine who has too complicated a past to sum up in this dependent clause. Historical romance novels usually feature dukes (or maybe, if we’re slumming, marquises, or earls). And if the hero starts out as penniless, he often ends up inheriting the title in the end. Not Walter.
A handsome ladies man, Walter was wounded in service and sold his commission. Having two healthy older brothers and a nephew, he needed to find a profession, so he found himself the vicar of Grange-Over-Sands, fighting off the advances of marriageable ladies and their parents as he delivers sermons to a congregation that far exceeds the population of his village. One day, Walter catches sight of a beautiful blond woman escorting her father to and from services (but not attending herself) and pries her story from his housekeeper. Her name is Artemisia Finch, a fallen woman from a well-respected landowning family in town, who became pregnant by the son of an earl as a teen. Although she named the father, he denied paternity and accused her of sleeping around. She left for London, working as a courtesan (only two lovers, though), but returned to the village to care for her ailing father. The Finches are shunned as a result of Artemisia’s sordid past, and rarely leave their home or entertain callers.
Walter had admired Artemisia from afar in London, and decides to pay her a visit. Although I was a bit squicked out by the thought that Walter is taking advantage of her situation (she never would have given him the time of day in London), this is a gripping scene, with each of them underestimating the other. Artemisia is sure the vicar has shown up to give her a sermon. When he denies it, she asks
“Is it not your responsibility to ensure that your flock does not stray from the path of righteousness?”
“The flock always strays, Miss Finch. It is the nature of sheep—and people—to wander. It is the job of the shepherd—or the vicar—to see that they are welcomed back when they do, not to prevent them from doing so.”
When Walter admits he knew of Artemisia in London, she notes:
“Well,” Artemisia observed drily, “you must admit you are an excellent catch.”
“I admit no such thing. I assure you that once upon a time, I was the last man to have his name etched on any respectable young lady’s dance card. And in any event, I have no interest in being caught on anyone’s hook just yet.”
“In my experience, men never want to be caught, but they do tend to be attracted to bright, shiny objects, which often leads to that result.” She tilted to her head to one side, recalling the original question that had led them down the path of this conversation. And that it had not been answered.
“Is that why you’re here, Mr. Langston? Because I’m a bright, shiny object that doesn’t have a hook hiding underneath?”
This is a novella, so by the end of the scene, they’ve agreed to meet the next day for a rendezvous. Neither of them have any desire (or in Artemisia’s case, any hope) for a marriage, but they like sex and are very attracted to each other.
Hot Under the Collar is not an erotic romance, and contains fewer and tamer sex scenes than another of Barbosa’s shorts, Grace Under Fire. That is more than fine with me (I’ve had it with historicals overloaded with sex). However, while the sex scenes were well-written, since these are two experienced adults who make appointments, I did miss the sexual tension.
We are told that Walter was a bit of an aimless rogue in a past life, but all we see is an earnest, sensible, very good man in Hot Under the Collar, with the exception that he is willing to engage in an extramarital affair. I really enjoyed the way Walter’s work as a vicar was portrayed, and the way it was folded into the story. For example, he helps to convince Artemisia (who is too pragmatic for her own good, and a bit stalled as a character) that she might be accepted back into society. When she attends a local dance…
There was still an unnatural silence in the air, and Walter waited for what would come next as both the dance and the music came to a halt. Artemisia saw him then, and their eyes met across the crowded room.
This is a mistake, hers said.
His heart ached with the need to rush to her side, to stand with her and be her champion. But he had already done all the championing he could. For the time being.
In a romance, I like sexual tension, and I like relationship tension, and there was little of either. The conflict is always external: beginning with the fear they will be caught and ending up as “how can a vicar marry the town’s fallen woman?” To that end, there’s a terrific, albeit highly unlikely, scene in the church at the end.
The development of the central love relationship wasn’t what I hoped, but I enjoyed Hot Under the Collar for the unusual take on historical romance it offers.
In other vicar news, Julie Ann Long has a vicar hero coming out in November. The Twitterati also tell me that Patricia Gaffney’s To Love and to Cherish, Patricia Wynn’s The Parson’s Pleasure, and Liz Carlyle’s A Woman Scorned all feature men of the cloth as heroes. There’s also a lot of vicar erotic romance if you are so inclined.
(Barbosa and I follow each other on Twitter, which is how I found out about this one. I Kindled it for $2.99.)