Avon, $5.99, ISBN 0-06-056514-4
Historical Romance, 2004
It is not often that an author can follow up a keeper with another – especially an author whose writing style doesn’t deviate too much from that in her traditional Regency romance books, heh – as my expectations will be running high by the time I read the follow-up, but Candice Hern manages to pull it off with me. I am enchanted by this story of a couple who is forced to marry once they are inadvertently compromised, especially when this story doesn’t resort to overused ugly duckling plot devices or alpha mule antics.
Prudence Armitage is a genuinely shy and mousy woman who has more right to call herself “bluestocking” compared to all those dumb critters in other Regency historical romances out there. She works for Edwina Curry, the heroine of Once a Scoundrel, and has always secretly carried a torch for Edwina’s brother, Nicholas. He shares the same ideals of equality as she. He is handsome and charismatic and oh-so-confident. How can she not fall for him? Alas, Nicholas sees her as just someone taken in by his sister who shares the same philosophies as him. Yes, he sees her as a friend. Men, hmmmph!
Now that Edwina is on her honeymoon, Prudence takes over the running of The Ladies’ Fashionable Closet, Edwina and Nicholas’s republican magazine geared towards the Modern Women. One day, she works very late and falls asleep at her desk in the office. Unfortunately, this office is located in Nicholas’s house. Since she has spent the night unchaperoned in a bachelor’s house, Prudence’s family demands satisfaction from Nicholas, and Nicholas has no choice but to marry Prudence.
Nicholas is initially displeased because he cannot overlook the difference in their status. So much for equality and fraternity, eh? But to give him credit, he does try to approach their marriage in a reasonable manner. He will be patient and do his best to be kind to his wife. He won’t coax her into physical intimacies.
Prudence however is more than ready to make this marriage a real one, so she tries her best to break down her husband’s defenses. This leads to some amusing and sometimes embarrassing consequences. Remember when I said that Prudence is shy? Well, she really is shy, being someone who can only truly express herself freely through indirect means like her music. Ms Hern captures Prudence’s state of discomfort at having to find the courage to open up so well that Prudence comes off as very realistic. Another nice and realistic touch here is that Prudence remains a plain and mousy woman even when she finally begins to dress up for her husband. When Nicholas falls hard for Prudence, he’s falling for her inner beauty and not because she has finally revealed some supermodel body underneath her dowdy clothes.
Nicholas can be really disagreeable at times, especially at the beginning of the marriage, but he has the self-awareness to realize when he is wrong and when he should change. I enjoy reading about his gradual falling for Prudence because his character development is very nicely done in a manner that I find credible. Likewise, Prudence’s slowly coming out of shell is just as enjoyable to read. Their relationship is filled with small quiet moments that resonate with me as well as larger scale scenes of emotional epiphany that works very well. In other words, Nicholas and Prudence come off very well in the end as a couple that really belong together through mutual passions and shared beliefs – a couple who love and respect each other.
I have some problems with Prudence’s relationship with her family, which is inconsistent and smacks of contrivances, but I am more engrossed in the developing relationship between Nicholas and Prudence to be really bothered by this. Sure, I can use a little more spice in the love scenes department, but Ms Hern manages to include enough sexual tension in all those subtle little gestures and looks between her characters that I find this book very erotic at places nonetheless.
I have come across romance novels that are merely enjoyable without being anything more. Once a Gentleman however is one book that I not only enjoy but also a book that engages my emotions to make me smile, laugh, and sigh with the characters from start to finish. Also, this is one book where I find the characters real and their relationship developed well enough for me to find the love story satisfyingly romantic.