Avon, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-06-267394-0
Historical Romance, 2018
Eliza Cross is a sweet, gentle young lady who knows, after an unsuccessful Season, that she is happiest in the country with her roses and her adorable mutt Willy. I know, a lonely woman who names her canine companion Willy, the joke writes itself, but come on, our heroine’s really lovely and doesn’t deserve any coarse vulgarity we of the great unwashed can come up with.
Her father, Edward, is a nobody who made a fortune by making a large number of profitable investments, but her lack of pedigree means that the only men who would consider her for marriage would be those who want the money bags that come with her. Our heroine wants a love match, one that her parents have, and her father has never disabused her of the notion that, one day, she will find that special man who will sweep her off her feet. Not that Eliza is holding her breath – she knows that she is not exactly the diamond of first water, and she lacks the wit or feisty nature that can help her stand out from all those other so-called plain bluestocking romance heroines in the other Avon historical romances out this month and the month before. So who knows, maybe the right man will never notice her when she’s surrounded by more beautiful women.
Then comes Hugh Deveraux, the sixth Earl of Hastings. Oh, her silly Willy lands her in an embarrassing tangle before that man, but he seems to pay her notice. He sends her flowers, shows up to see her when her father is away, and… my goodness, he is courting her. He’s so sweet, so genuine, so tender, that when he proposes, Eliza believes that she is the luckiest man alive to find such a man that she loves so, so much…
“I’ll forgive the mortgages and debts outright,” Cross said, his voice no longer casual and relaxed. “Elizabeth has a dowry of fifty thousand pounds, and she’ll inherit the rest when I die. Almost half a million pounds as of now.” A predatory smile glinted across his face for a moment. “I’m not done yet, of course. It might be twice that when I shuffle off my mortal cloak.”
“Does she know about this lunatic plan?” Hugh finally found his voice.
“No, nor will she.” Cross’s expression hardened. “At the first word you breathe to her about this conversation, my offer is irrevocably withdrawn. I’ll call the debts as strictly and as promptly as the law permits, and Hastings – I won’t hesitate to set the bailiffs on you.”
Hugh is a nice man. Really. The problem is that his late father lived by the motto “Spend, spend, spend!” No extravagance was beyond that man, and while the family was living the dream while that man was alive, poor Hugh realized after the man’s death that they have no money anymore. Everything is mortgaged and there is a big pile of debts. His sisters have no dowry, and his mother has a tiny allowance. Hence, his pressing need for money. You see, he recently financed his sister’s Season using his winnings at high-stake tables in London, but his sister is being courted by some guy who seems very serious about his intention, so he needs to cough up a dowry ASAP. It is during one of these games that he meets Edward, who likes what he sees and proceeds to buy up all of Hugh’s debts in order to force him to date Eliza.
Yes, date. For all his faults, Edward is still a loving father, he wants his daughter to get her romantic courtship too. So, he will still absolve Hugh’s debts if Eliza rejects him – so long as Hugh spends a month or so wooing his daughter in the sweetest way possible. As you can guess, as time passes by, Hugh genuinely begins to fall for Eliza, and that leaves him in a serious pickle as he is too noble not to feel a huge amount of guilt over how their relationship started on false pretenses. Not to mention, he knows that she will find out the truth eventually, and he begins to scramble to find a way to prove his worth to her in order to soften the blow when the shoe drops.
Now, I really adore both main characters. Hugh, as I’ve mentioned, is a nice fellow who doesn’t want to lie to anyone, but he’s trapped into this arrangement with Edward due to pressing needs. Eliza is sweet and nice, yes, but she’s not some martyr or one-dimensional saint. The closest I think of to compare her to is the heroine of Amanda Quick’s Scandal, but with less air-headed chatter about love: our heroine seems to be all sunshine and love for the people around her, but she will never be mistaken for a doormat or dumbbell. The first thing she does after being told about her husband’s financial transactions with her father is to go to her husband’s study to look over his account books to determine for herself whether this is true.
Furthermore, she’s not the “OH NOES I WANTED LOVE AND NOW, LOVE IS DEAD AND I WILL NEVER LOVE AGAIN!!!” idiot type – she is enough of her father’s daughter to actually see the pragmatic aspects of the whole arrangement. She doesn’t agree with it, but she knows why things happen the way they did, and she also is level-headed enough to look back at how Hugh treated her up to the point to realize that what they had perhaps may be real after all. Our heroine has a lot of things to work out, and she does this in a rational, almost systematic manner that makes me want to stand up and applaud. Also, she never lets any disapproving or snobby people walk all over her – she may be a sweet, nice lady but she knows how to scratch back without being too obvious about it.
Our hero isn’t the moaning type that goes “Oh, I will now push her away for her good, because I am a loser FOREVER!” – he is proactive in chasing to get his wife back, and again, I want to stand up and applaud. Both the hero and the heroine communicate and fall in love in a dreamy too-good-to-be-true way, of course, but when things go wrong, they demonstrate believable behavior that goes against the tired old “Love sucks so I will just sit here, doing nothing other than to whine and play the martyr!” antics that many romance authors love so much.
But why three oogies then, you may ask. Well, reading An Earl Like You is like arranging for a hot and sexy sweat-out with this gorgeous, wealthy, and charming guy. The dinner is amazing – the ambiance is great, the food is appropriately expensive, and the tablecloths reach the floor. And oh, the anticipation! The way he looks at me, as if he’s undressing me with his eyes and telling me he loves what he sees. And when I lift my leg under the table to show him how much I like how he’s looking at me, ooh, it feels… promising. And then, oh, the room he brings me to, it’s perfect with everything I ever dream of, especially that huge pile of hundred dollar bills that we’re going to make love on. And the foreplay… oh, it’s… it’s… everything and more, and yes, he’s going to… oh my, that’s it, more, so much more…. give it to… WAIT, THAT’S IT? ARE YOU KIDDING ME? BRING IT BACK! BRING IT BACK, ASSHOLE!
This story has 373 pages. The discovery of the financial transaction is made only on page 300. The story has been building up to that moment, so imagine my bewilderment when what is supposed to be the pivotal moment of the story has only sixty-plus pages (don’t forget the epilogue) to resolve itself. As I’ve mentioned, I like how the main characters behave in a down-to-earth, believable, rational manner without resorting to short-cut clichéd antics to resolve their conflict, but there aren’t enough pages to do them justice. Worse, the author does another short-cut instead: secondary characters begin to line up to tell the heroine why she should take the guy back. I want the hero and the heroine to sort it out themselves, to scream and throw things if they need to, so to get the heroine being pushed into “understanding” why Hugh did what he did feels so much like some heartbreaking cop-out.
At any rate, An Earl Like You is borderline four- to five-oogie read for so long, and I am almost getting there, and then – pffft. That’s it? Seriously? Bring it back! Bring it back!
Still, while normally three oogies are reserved for books that one can take or leave with equal impunity, there is enough here for me to suggest that folks reading this to give this one a try anyway. Sure, the payoff is a big deflated balloon for me, but if you are looking for dreamy courtships and an adorable pair of main characters, who knows, this one may still hit the right spots.