About a quarter of the way into When a Rogue Meets His Match, I realized the book was probably not going to be a particularly successful villain redemption or enemies-to-lovers romance. About three-quarters of the way in, I started to wonder what, exactly, the intended message of this book was, because it was verging in a startlingly uncomfortable way on emotional abuse apologia. Everything after that felt like too little, too late in terms of trying to earn any kind of HEA. This was an incredibly disappointing read for me, and I will do my best to articulate why, even though my primary reaction is just wordless angry yelling.
The premise of When a Rogue Meets His Match is as follows: Messalina Greycourt is an intelligent, beautiful aristocrat with an evil uncle, the Duke of Windemere. The Duke of Windemere sends his head lackey in matters of Evil, the low-born Mr. Gideon Hawthorne, to collect his niece from the countryside and bring her back to London. When they arrive in London, Messalina learns that she is to marry Mr. Hawthorne against her will.
The blurb of When a Rogue Meets His Match calls this union a “marriage of convenience.” This is misleading: it is a marriage that is forced on Messalina and Messalina only. Gideon wants to leave the Duke’s employ, but he agrees to perform any final single task the Duke asks in exchange for marriage to Messalina, because he finds Messalina sexy and fascinating and also plans to use her massive dowry and social standing to make an entrée into polite society.
Okay, so. At point 0, this is a really shitty thing the “hero” does. He sort of negotiates with Messalina to grant her some concessions (including 10% of her own dowry once they consummate the marriage, which they agree will be in a month) but it does not negate the fact that he has conspired with the Duke to massively violate Messalina’s human rights and autonomy for completely self-interested reasons. To me, this indicates that he thinks of Messalina as something less than a full human being, at least at this point in the book.
Now, I actually don’t think this in and of itself necessarily poses an insurmountable obstacle to an eventual HEA, although it is a pretty huge one!! I greatly enjoy a well-done villain redemption romance. Part of what is so compelling about the romance genre for me is the idea that giving and receiving genuine love to another person can redeem almost anyone. A key component of this, however, is that the villain has to actually be redeemed, and at such a pace that as the romance blooms, the evolving relationship between the main couple does not feel icky.
To that end, I would posit that for a villain redemption romance to actually work, one of two things (or some combination) has to happen:
- We learn new information about the villain that recontextualizes his (it’s almost invariably his) actions to make them seem less reprehensible, thus lowering the height of the overall barrier to HEA.
- Through some amount of emotional suffering and hard-fought personal growth, the villain actually changes as a person in a believable way and makes restitution for his actions, thus convincing the reader that he both deserves an HEA and that he deserves to have it with his love interest.
Unfortunately, When a Rogue Meets His Match completely fails at doing either of these two things. This means the “romance” is very un-fun as it reads more like an easily manipulated woman being duped repeatedly by an incredibly selfish, callous man for about 80% of the book. You could take out the hastily slapped-on HEA, shelve this as historical tragedy, and the book would basically work.
The first big red flag that made me think the romance was not going to cohere was actually how quickly Messalina forgives Gideon for forcing her into marriage. She is initially planning on getting her promised 10% dowry money and immediately leaving the country with her sister (which is a great plan, in my humble opinion). But she is so pleasantly shocked that Gideon is not 100% cruel and awful every moment of every day that she is already starting to fall in love with him within 2 weeks of marriage—to the extent that she is engaging in revisionist history about their wedding. She actually tells her siblings:
I don’t know if anyone could have prevented the marriage.
GIRL, WHAT? GIDEON COULD HAVE PREVENTED THE MARRIAGE, BY NOT PARTICIPATING IN A PLOT TO FORCE YOU TO MARRY HIM!! The fact that Messalina says this when this man forced her into marriage about 14 days ago is BANANAGRAMS and it makes it seem like she has Stockholm Syndrome.
It is painfully clear from Gideon’s narration that he has not remotely earned Messalina’s tender feelings at this point (or any other point). He continues to have NO remorse for forcing her into marriage, indicating that he has undergone no personal growth. While she’s thinking about how she feels guilty for planning to leave him because she’s feeling “fondness” for him and his beautiful lips, he’s thinking:
But Gideon couldn’t bring himself to regret forcing Messalina to marry him. She was softening, day by day, hour by hour. If, in the end, she was truly content with their marriage, perhaps even happy, what did it matter that she hadn’t started that way? It was merely a small quibble.
Bluntly, what the fuck?! It’s a big quibble for me. “It’s fine that I forced you to marry me if I can love-bomb you into not despising me” is an incredibly disturbing attitude and shows that Gideon has not changed one iota since forcing Messalina to marry him. He has the same selfishness and disdain for her personhood that he had at the beginning of the book.
And that task Gideon was supposed to complete for the Evil Duke?
He’s supposed to murder Messalina’s brother, Julien Greycourt. For the record, he spends the majority of the book planning on committing the murder. And not in a “I’ll get around to it eventually, I guess,” kinda way, in a “following him around town actively planning how to murder him” kinda way.
Also, in case you are wondering how the Evil Duke is maintaining leverage against Gideon when he’s already married Messalina, Evil Duke is going to hold on to the dowry until Gideon completes the murder. This means the only actual motivator for Gideon to kill Julien is for money, and it’s Messalina’s money. Ugh.
To recap, so far in this “romance” Gideon has done an awful thing to Messalina that he has zero regrets about and is planning on doing at least one more awful thing to her, all while she is starting to fall in love with him. This was icky, but at this point in the book I thought maybe this was just going to be an uncomfortable pacing issue and that Gideon would start gaining ground in terms of actual redemption. Boy, was I wrong.
Once Messalina’s siblings arrive, Gideon realizes that the unconsummated marriage could pose a problem, because with help from her brothers, Messalina could still annul the marriage. So that night, knowing Messalina is attracted to him, he seduces her about two weeks ahead of their previously agreed-upon consummation schedule. Boom! One potential escape route for Messalina gone. Gross.
This poses a huge structural problem to the resolution of the romance, because here we are about halfway through the book and the villain-hero has selfishly and dishonestly violated the heroine’s agency and personhood again and he does not ever express remorse for it or make restitution for it.
Messalina eventually finds out the truth about the timing of the, er, event (not from him, of course) and re-resolves to leave him. I personally wanted her to take her little sister and her dog and leave him and never return and have the rest of the book be about her adventures in Europe. But alas, there was even more messed up shit in store for the “romance” of Messalina and Gideon.
While she is thinking about leaving Gideon, Messalina gets truly horrible advice from her friend, Freya (who was the heroine of the first book in this series). In encouraging Messalina to not immediately leave, she says:
“Remember, though, we don’t choose whom we love, none of us. You’re angry now and with good reason. He’s been despicable to you. But that doesn’t stop love. No matter how much we wish it would.” She looked at Messalina. “Do you love a lying, manipulative rogue who likes to fight with knives?”
Messalina’s brain was awhirl with doubts and fears, base longs and feelings. “I…have feelings for Gideon, but I don’t know if I love him. And I can’t tell if all his talk was lies or the truth, perhaps hidden even from himself.”
“You need to find out.” Freya nodded. “I suggest you stay until you’re certain—one way or the other.”
Hey, Freya, guess what???? Love doesn’t make it okay for someone to hurt you. It is okay to leave someone you love when they have repeatedly hurt you, even if they love you. In fact, sometimes it is the only thing you can do to protect yourself.
Look, relationships can come back from betrayal and hurt, and some of the best romances explore that, but at this point nothing in this book has shown me or Messalina that Gideon is anything other than a narcissistic person with no respect for Messalina, but who happens to be charming in a day-to-day context.
So, with Freya’s spectacularly awful and messed-up advice in mind, Messalina is prepared to be receptive to Gideon’s manly wiles once again. This leads to the thing that possibly upset me the MOST about this book:
The thing that makes Messalina soften towards Gideon again is that he buys her a goddamn library. To be clear, he does not apologize. He does not acknowledge that anything he has done up to this point is messed up and hurtful. He just buys her a present. This is such a common abuse tactic (do a horrible thing, buy an extravagant present to make restitution but never change) that I was physically nauseated reading this scene.
Oh, also, somewhere around here Gideon FINALLY realizes he probably can’t go through with killing Julien, but it’s not like he’s honest with Messalina about what her uncle asked from him.
Around this time, we also learn more about Gideon’s traumatic childhood when he tells Messalina about it. I hated this late-book reveal of Gideon’s Tragic Past because it felt extremely manipulative to both the reader and to Messalina. Look, traumatized people (and aren’t we all traumatized people!) sometimes do messed-up stuff as a result of that trauma and they do deserve to be able to grow and change. But just the fact that Gideon has a serious trauma history does not make the abusive behavior he inflicts on Messalina okay, or mean that she should forgive him, and it feels like the narrative arc is trying to tell us that it does mean those things.
Finally, FINALLY, Messalina learns what Gideon was supposed to do for her uncle (but only because she demands to know, not because he was ever going to tell her of his own volition). Once again, she decides to leave him, and she actually makes it to the carriage and leaves London this time. Once again, various people around her question whether this is “what she really wants” when it should be crystal-clear to literally everyone that Gideon is toxic and Messalina should be running away from him screaming.
Only at this eleventh-hour point when Messalina has left London does the book attempt to show Gideon changing in any meaningful way, but it’s far too late. And I mean it’s far too late for me, the reader, to be convinced. Naturally, Messalina comes running back at the first sign of a conciliatory gesture and they have a completely undeserved and enraging HEA.
My problem with this book, then, can be summed up as follows: Gideon repeatedly inflicts emotional suffering on Messalina and never makes what I would describe as genuine or believable restitution. The Gideon of the end of the book is exactly the same as the Gideon of the beginning of the book except he is capable in a literal way of saying the words “I love you” even if they appear to have no real meaning or impact for him. I guess I believe that he has come to care about Messalina being happy or content in a kind of abstract way (just so long as she is happy with him). But a “romance” that validates the idea that if two people love each other, it’s okay for one of them to repeatedly hurt the other one without ever even apologizing, let alone doing anything to change, is a pretty big failure as a romance. Even die-hard Hoyt fans (as I generally am) should consider skipping this one.