by Elizabeth Hoyt, historical (2009)
Grand Central Publishing, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-446-40693-2
Aww, Elizabeth Hoyt's To Beguile A Beast almost is a keeper for me. This one is the third book in the author's The Four Soldiers series, but it can stand alone very well as the story arc spanning the books in the series is barely present here.
This is a classic beauty and the beast story. The hero, Sir Alistair Munroe, is actually genuinely ugly. We are not talking about some dashing scar here; his time in the American Colonies cost him his left eye and two fingers, leaving the left side of his face completely disfigured by angry red scars and a sunken, gaping empty eye socket. A naturalist by choice when he is not taking up arms, he lives pretty much as a hermit in his rundown Castle Greaves. He doesn't need a housekeeper, but Helen Fitzwilliam has conspired with the wife of Alistair's friend to show up and become his housekeeper no matter what.
You see, Helen is the mistress of the Duke of Lister, but he has always treated her more like a prized item in his collection rather than a lover. Having long fallen out of love with him, she decides to flee with her two children because the Duke is known to get pretty nasty to those who try to thwart his wishes. As Helen and her two children make themselves cozy in Castle Greaves, you can imagine how the rest of the story will turn out, I'm sure.
Okay, so "the guy I was running away from is a crazy megalomaniac" may not be the most interesting plot to drive a story along, but oh my, this story is all about beautifully written and exquisitely portrayed slow burn of sexual tension as well as the tenderly portrayed scenes of Alistair's eventual acceptance and even care for his initially unwanted visitors. Alistair is a grouch who is all bark but no bite, and when he tries to be sweet, he is so much sweeter as a result of his intentions. Helen is a well-written heroine too. She isn't some housekeeper wunderkind, but she is smart enough to adapt into her role and make the best out of it for the sake of her children. Those scenes in Castle Graves tug at my heart strings so easily that I would have been embarrassed if I weren't having too much fun being played in such a manner. Ms Hoyt knows how to make the smallest and most mundane moments in a budding relationship come off as the most romantic thing ever, and sometimes in a relationship, it is the small little moments that count as much as, if not more than, melodramatic gestures of love.
Even the children are well-portrayed. They aren't annoying, instead they are actually quite likable. Sometimes they can get wee precious in a "Dakota Fanning crying piteously" manner, but still, they come off like kids who could use some TLC.
So why don't I give this book a keeper grade? Well, it's all those small little moments that eventually build up into a mountain of misgivings on my part. For example, in a story that is anything but familiar, I am disappointed when Ms Hoyt resorts to the same old familiar sexual dynamic of the woman being less experienced than the man, which I find in this case a little contrived. After all, Alistair has been celibate for almost as long as Helen, so the fact that he still can take the leading role as the tutor and initiator has me scratching my head a bit.
Even more disappointing is how after all his angst and experiences with humanity's worst, he still behaves like a man of his time and judges Helen harshly for being a mistress. Of course, Helen is a "good" mistress - she thought she was in love with the Duke of Lister, et cetera. How nice that Alistair finds her tearful confession acceptable. I wonder how he will react if Helen was the Duke's mistress out of financial necessity. Will she become the biggest harlot ever in his eyes? I am hoping that Alistair will turn out to be less predictable and the author will do things differently, but perhaps I'm expecting too much, sigh.
Still, despite some contrived concessions to the romance formula that I find disappointing because so much of the story stray out of familiar territory, To Beguile A Beast is a well-written romance that plays with my emotions effortlessly. I definitely will rank this one as one of the better written beauty and the beast stories I've read.
This book at Amazon.com
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