Grand Central Publishing, $8.00, ISBN 978-1-4555-1330-7
Historical Romance, 2013
Daphne Honeycote is very good at helping others. She cared for her ailing mother, but she never resented that, because she likes these things. In another time, she’d have been a great nurse who cares for her job. Anyway, things are finally looking up. Her sister married a duke, who installed her and her mother in their own comfortable place, and Daphne finally has her first Season. Her looks make her the beauty of the ball, and the handsome, gentlemanly Hugh, Lord Biltmore seems to be interested in her. While she doesn’t harbor strong feelings for him yet, she is determined to enjoy her Season. New sceneries, new people, new… oh, wait, then there’s Benjamin Elliot, the Earl of Baldwin.
Ben’s friend was the brother of Lord Biltmore. The now dead friend and Ben served in Waterloo together, and the man died after making Ben promise that he’d take care of Hugh. Ben knows that Hugh is earnest, but he also knows that Daphne is not the right woman for Ben. Why? Ben has seen Daphne in a state of shocking dishabille. Well, not personally. He has a painting of a woman in his study who looks just like Daphne, in a pose lovingly recreated on the cover of this book. He knows that Daphne is that woman, even if the artist had gotten some of the details a bit off, because he’s stared and studied the painting for more times than he’d count, taken in by how the woman in the painting seemed to glow with light, just like the real like Daphne. Not that he wants Daphne for himself, of course, definitely not.
When he tells Daphne that he has the painting, you can imagine her reaction, I’m sure. She posed for two paintings back in those days in Seven Dials, for money of course, and the paintings were supposed to be sold to the artist’s patron for a private collection. How did one of them end up with Ben? More importantly, where is the other painting? While she has no regrets posing for them – she did what she had to do back in those days, after all – she knows that any taint to her reputation would damage the reputations of her sister and, especially, her brother-in-law’s sisters, whom she’d become very fond of. If Ben wants her to break it off with Hugh, then he should help her locate the other painting. She’d then buy it back, using Ben as a go-between, of course, and hopefully the paintings will never haunt her again.
Naturally, as Ben and Daphne spend more time together, the usual happens.
On the surface, Once She Was Tempted is a lot like many historical romances set in England in the 19th century, but at the same time, this one is something totally, uniquely the author’s. Anne Barton is lot like Cathy Maxwell and Julie Anne Long – well, Julie Anne Long before that interminable series ruined the party completely – and her way of creating heroes are that to die for is just exquisite.
Really, Ben, like the bloke in the previous book, is such an adorable sweetheart that I feel like I’m dying inside of joy page by page. You know, that “this is so cute I think I am going to die” kind of feeling? Ben has survivor’s guilt, as many of his comrades died in Waterloo while he didn’t, and he is cynical, brittle, and even rude as he has little patience for the Ton. Oh, and his leg acts up at times – really badly, as in he’s practically crippled with pain until the whole thing goes away – which embarrasses him when it happens in public. And yet, he is willing to listen to Daphne and even work with her out of a sense of chivalry – he can’t let her sink due to something she had to do in order to survive, after all, it’s not just done. And as the story progresses, he demonstrates that he has no problems trying to move mountains and part the sea for Daphne, without having her to ask him. It’s gorgeous, he’s gorgeous. It’s delightful how he tries so hard to be this sneering, cynical fellow when, in truth, he’s actually a guy who loves freely and devotedly.
Daphne is a cheerful subversion of the martyr heroine. She loves taking care of people, she now devotes her time with orphans, and she is also trying to protect the reputations of her sister and sisters-in-law. The thing is, this is something she loves to do, and hence, there is no drama on her part about this. In many ways, she’s perfect for Ben, as her patience and caring nature would be a balm to Ben’s soul. And believe me, he’s the first person to realize that in this story. There are moments when she wants to do the “I’ll just disappear for everyone’s sake!” thing, but Ben would rein her in before she goes in that direction, accurately pointing out that any acts of martyrdom would only hurt the ones she loves more. Thus, he’s good for her too, as he keeps her grounded when she tries too hard to be a martyred saint. And I absolutely adore how Daphne is never a martyr when it comes to the relationship between her and Ben. Ben is the one who feels that he would be holding her back if she marries him, and my goodness, she really tears into him for that attitude. She will decide whom she’d love, thank you very much, and if marrying Ben is a burden she must bear, then let it be her choice to shoulder that burden.
Like I’ve said, Daphne is a subversion of the martyr heroine trope – she’s embodies the kind and selfless heroine in all the right ways. She’s selfless, but not stupid. She cares too much sometimes, but not to an extent that allows people to take advantage of her. She wants to make the world a better place for some people, but she doesn’t stop thinking about her own needs in the process.
Just like the last book, the last few chapters here require considerable suspension of disbelief. She is a bit like Courtney Milan in this way: she would present a conflict that seems authentic within the context of the 19th century, but the resolution offers a happy ending for everyone, often in ways that simply sweep aside the societal repercussions of the union a little too conveniently to be believable. In other words, the story feels like it is trying to seem authentic and credible, but the ending is like, “You know what? Love overcomes everything – so there!” I don’t mind it, but I have to admit, how Ben helps Daphne extricate herself from that very sticky situation is a little over the top compared to the rest of the story. The effect is quite jarring. But that’s okay, I adore these two characters so much that I can’t bring myself to stop caring no matter how silly that moment is.
I wonder a bit how many oogies I should give this book. But when I close the book, I finally realize that my eyes have teared up, and judging from the amount of tissue paper wadded up beside me, I’ve been tearing up quite a bit while reading this book – without me really noticing that because I was just too engrossed in the story. That or I’ve gone senile, but let’s pretend that I’m just bowled over by Once She Was Tempted. Under the circumstances, five oogies are more than fair, I’d think. This is, after all, an improbably, unexpectedly magnificent read.