Sir Gabriel Winters made a deal with god. Accept him as a man who is attracted to other men, and Gabriel will dedicate his life to the church and taking care of others. He is now the vicar in the town where he grew up and works tirelessly to help those in his community. When Gabriel hears rumor that Edward Stanhope, the Duke of Caddonfell, has returned to his ancestral home in town, Gabriel can’t resist being intrigued. As children, Gabriel and Edward were the closest of friends, and Gabriel can admit he had feelings for Edward, but at age 18, Edward left home for London, never to return. Now, ten years later, Gabriel still hasn’t gotten over the hurt of Edward’s departure. When Gabriel heads to check out the news of Edward’s return, a fever gets the best of him, leaving him collapsed in Edward’s flower beds.
Edward left home as soon as he could, not able to spend another moment in the place of his childhood torment at the hands of his father. He wouldn’t even be back now, except he is in hiding. Edward has quite the reputation in London for his affairs with other men. Fortunately, his status as a duke, along with his brother Maurice’s power as a blackmailer, means he mostly stays out of trouble. But this time, Edward’s dalliance may have gone too far, as he got caught with the son of a powerful man who now wants Edward dead. Edward was forced to flee to his ancestral home, where he is to remain hidden until things cool off. But upon finding Gabriel, Edward knows he can’t leave the man sick and alone, and he brings him into the house to take care of him.
When Gabriel recovers, he wants nothing to do with Edward. His feelings are still way too raw from Edward’s abandonment — and his attraction is still way to fierce. But now that Gabriel and his sister know that Edward is home, things have become much more risky. Not only are Edward’s whereabouts less protected, but Gabriel and Caroline are at risk. But there is no way Gabriel is leaving now when Edward may be in danger. And the more time the men spend together, the more brightly things burn between them. Maurice is determined to figure out why the Duke of Sussex wants Edward dead; he is sure there is more to the story than just discovering the liaison in a stable. So the group sets out to investigate just what could be behind the Duke’s ire. But even as Gabriel and Edward grow closer, all their lives continue to be at risk unless they can discover the truth behind the mystery.
The Vicar and the Rake is the first book in Annabelle Greene’s new Society of Beasts series and I think it is off to a great start. The story has both a friends to lovers and an enemies to lovers vibe, as Gabriel is still angry at Edward for abandoning him without a word, but there remains a strong bond between the men from their friendship and close relationship years before. Gabriel has lived a quiet life, dedicating himself to the town and the church as a way to harness his guilt about his attraction to men. Edward, on the other hand, lives a life of wild and reckless debauchery, covering up his pain by acting out in excess. At first, Gabriel doesn’t want anything to do with Edward. He is hurt, and a little jealous to hear about all the men Edward has slept with. But Gabriel also couldn’t even conceive of leaving Edward in danger without trying to help. The men slowly begin to reconnect, and the chemistry between them is intense. It takes a while for the men to connect much physically (mostly because everyone in the house is trying to keep them apart, lest they make an already bad situation worse), but I really felt the intensity between them. Gabriel may be a man of the church, but he doesn’t hold back with Edward and definitely acts on his attraction.
From an emotional end, it takes some time for Edward to really let himself be with Gabriel. We learn early on that Edward’s father was horribly abusive and that has left not just physical scars that Edward won’t let anyone see, but also emotional scars. They are what keep Edward in a state of constant frivolity, attempting to stop himself from reflecting too much on his past. And they keep Edward from believing he can truly be with Gabriel, or that Gabriel will want him once he knows Edward’s secrets. I do think this uncertainty goes on a bit overlong for my taste. I also kept waiting for a time where the men really talked about the situation. Edward does reveal his scars to Gabriel, but they never have a real discussion about it, nor do they ever talk about why Edward left years ago. So I felt this was a little unresolved.
What I enjoyed most here is the mystery aspect, as the group digs in to why the Duke of Sussex wants Edward dead. It is clear that the dalliance with his son is not the only thing in play here, and they know they must figure out what is really going on before the Duke finds Edward. The story takes on a bit of a house party mystery feel as Edward, Maurice, Gabriel, and Caroline try to uncover what is really going on. I found the story fun and exciting, with some nice intense moments. The resolution relies too heavily on a very strong coincidence for my liking, however. It took a little away from the twistiness of the mystery for it to work out so patly. But I still found it engaging and interesting. I particularly like the fierce and terrifying Maurice and the way he caves in the face of Caroline. There were definite hints of attraction between them and I would have loved to see this pairing explored more. The book also introduces us to the Society of Beasts, Edward’s London club for men who like other men. He is one of the founding members and the other men get involved in the mystery as well. I assume the future books will feature these characters and it was nice to get introduced to them here.
This looks to be the author’s debut work and I think things are off to a great start. I really enjoyed the story and the author’s style and am very much looking forward to the next book in the series.