In The Flesh
by Portia Da Costa, historical (2012)
HQN, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-373-77716-7
I strongly suspect that In The Flesh was originally intended for the erotic Spice line, only to be absorbed into the HQN line after the Spice line folded. This is because, while there is certainly romance in this story, the overall vibe of the book is more erotica than romance. The characters exhibit a degree of, well, pragmatism, let's just say, where sex is concerned. It's very common for the main characters, especially the heroine, in erotic romances to have some selfless reason (like saving the world) to have sex and to show huge amounts of guilt to demonstrate that she is not an easy lay of any kind. Even if she puts out to the hero within ten seconds of their meeting, because it's the principle that counts, that sort of thing.
Here, however, there is no guilt on heroine Beatrice Weatherly's part when it comes to becoming a mistress to Edmund Ellsworth Ritchie in order to settle his brother's debts to Ritchie. She has a "noble" cause to put out - this is, after all, marketed as an erotic historical romance - and she doesn't want to accept the lavish gifts from Ritchie that are worth more than her brother's debts, but she has no problems admitting that she enjoys the sex or that arrangement may provide her the financial leverage to get her life back on track.
Oh yes, I'm getting ahead of myself. It's 1890, and Beatrice is ruined. You see, she was "persuaded" by her now ex-fiancé to pose for some photographs in which she appeared nude and doing naughty things to herself. The circumstances that led to her posing for the photos are revealed later in the story, so I'd let readers discover that for themselves if they are interested. (Or you can email me and ask, of course.) Unfortunately for Beatrice, racy cabinet cards featuring these photos soon made the rounds about town. This is how Ritchie becomes a fan of Beatrice. Ritchie is the epitome of the creepy obsessed fan - he pretty much stalks the heroine and arranges for her to have no choice but to put out to him. You know the rest - the ice king soon realizes that the woman he's supposed to view only as a honeypot has become far more precious to him than he initially realized, et cetera. Meanwhile, the heroine's brother has an even racier subplot with the household staff, culminating in a ménage à trois arrangement that everyone is most happy with.
There are times while reading this story that I wonder whether In The Flesh is supposed to an erotic tribute to Jane Eyre. Certainly, the dynamics of Beatrice and Ritchie have shades reminiscent of that between Jane Eyre and Mr Rochester, right down to how the relationship starts with Ritchie holding all the power, but in the end, he is completely unraveled and the power has shifted to Beatrice's hands. Their relationship is far from pretty. It starts out admittedly rather clichéd - Beatrice seems like another misunderstood heroine who is perceived as a tart when she's actually less sexually experienced than many people think, and Ritchie is another oh-so-alpha hero who won't take no for an answer - but as the story unravels, the characters begin to show far more depths and complexity than I initially expected. What makes the relationship intriguing, to me, is the slow but certain sexual awakening of Beatrice, and how her discovery of her body's ability to give and receive pleasure allows her to develop the confidence to climb the steps in their relationship to finally stand on equal footing with Ritchie. In fact, "equal footing" is up for debate - in the end, Beatrice is the one who holds the power to accept or reject Ritchie. She accepts, of course, and by then, Ritchie has made it very clear that she is very important to him. He starts out as a creepy stalker but by the last page, he's transformed into the best kind of creepy stalker - one who will do anything to keep the heroine happy because she is the only one keeping his head out of the water, so to speak, and saving him from drowning in his sea of inner demons.
Another nice touch is how Ritchie turns out to be have issues up to the wazoo, but he doesn't use his issues as an excuse for his actions. The heroine starts seeing the hero as a woobie after discovering his secrets, of course, but to the author's credit, she manages to convince me in the end that Beatrice really does care for Ritchie and she stays with him because she loves him, not because she has built him up as a wounded woobie for her to base her rescue fantasies on. That's why their relationship works for me. It seems like a standard mistress cliché at first, but it becomes something far more complicated as the story progresses. The romance isn't pretty, it isn't healthy or sunny, but it is so dysfunctional-beautiful that everything works for me.
Oh, and I think it goes without saying that the sex scenes are steamy. What's nice is that Beatrice clearly enjoys these moments, and she even reaches out and grabs what she wants, heh, instead of just merely lying back and letting the hero do all the work. She may not be the round-heeled tart that people assumed she is, but she's not afraid to explore her desires either once she has the opportunity to indulge... everything... with Ritchie. And pretty much every scene that involves Charlie, Beatrice's brother, his happy employee/lover Jamie, and Beatrice's maid Polly is not meant for the genteel reader who is not used to reading about parties for three. This party is pretty well done, mostly because there is no tedious and vapid justification of the characters' arrangement (no "we are two gay guys who need a woman to feel complete" nonsense) and their enjoyment of each other.
I'm not saying that In The Flesh is perfect. The villain, for example, comes off as a rather hamfisted plot device to introduce some conflicts to accelerate the story to a happy ending. As much I like the tale of Charlie and his happy friends, I won't miss it too much if it had been removed to free up some space for the author to smoothen out some oh-that's-convenient kinks in the relationship between Beatrice and Ritchie. And the story starts out weakly, reminding me too much of any standard and generic alpha-male-wants-sex-now story, so it is a good thing that it becomes better as I turn the pages.
In the end, In The Flesh works well enough and I enjoy the whole crazy-dysfunctional breaking-the-woobie's-defenses romance between the main characters. and the sex scenes are a nice plus. This one's good to go.
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