Jove, $6.50, ISBN 0-515-13168-7
Historical Romance, 2001
Rebecca Hagan Lee’s Once a Mistress is an enjoyable story, but it starts off rather awkward and ends in a pitiful whimper instead of a bang.
I’ll get to the plot first before I start picking apart the story. The late Marquess of Templeton, George, was a man who lived life to the fullest. After the death of his wife, he had a string of mistresses whom he was genuinely fond off. When he died in a sailing accident, his son Andrew inherits the title and his father’s proviso: Andrew is to provide for his father’s mistresses and any offspring George had with them. In this book, Andrew discovers that one of those mistresses, this one living in his late mother’s home, to be Kathryn “Wren” Stafford, his ex. Oops. Worse, Wren presents a little boy whom she claims to be George’s son. Ouch.
Will Andrew take his Daddy’s sloppy seconds? Hmm, it does sound nasty when I put it that way. Be rest assured, people, this is a historical romance with the word “genteel” stamped on its sickly-looking, cadaver blue cover. Hence, even if Wren is a widow and she has had sexual experiences before, her sexuality is a result of violent behavior of the villain. No wonder at the end, Andrew tells her that no matter what, she is still a lady. Yeah, people, you hear that? You ain’t no lady if you do the popsie with anyone but your Prince Charming (do they come with labels on their forehead, so that we will know who to throw our knickers at?), unless, of course, your experience happens against your will. And your late husband is the one you doesn’t love but marry for security.
In the end, Wren is just that – a typical heroine created right out of the stock virginity-campaign blues to appease the readers who, for some reasons, don’t like the idea of women being sexual creatures.
When I first met Wren, she is fighting to rescue little foxes from a pack of hunters and their dogs. My skin almost crawled off to hide in some dark corners as every sense of mine screams “Mad, kooky heroine alert!” But towards the middle of the story, Wren does get a personality that delves deeper than the surface “kook” persona of hers. Likewise, Andrew starts out a complete stick-in-the-mud type, but he too gets a deeper personality. These two become human, if you will, rather than cardboard “stiff-lipped man” and “weirdo woman” one-dimensional characters. When Wren and Andrew talk about trust, responsibilities, and love, I thought, “Hey, Once a Mistress is good. Maybe this will be a keeper.”
Then the author, in the late third, pulls a villain out of nowhere and practically bludgeons her story back into the usual unthinking, indistinguishable stock historical romance template. After all her attempts at creating a heroine that seems to be the unusual sort, she decides to do some ludicrous damage control and forces Wren into becoming yet another poster girl for romance double standards. I wouldn’t be so infuriated if the author doesn’t make me believe she’s going to be better than that. File this one as a story who takes one tiny step to distinguish itself out of the norm, only to chicken out and retreat two hundred steps backwards. I feel so cheated, really. This one could have been a grand romance, but instead, it’s just a Taco Bell meal wrapped in a fancy diner’s packaging.