by Eloisa James, historical (2014)
Avon, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-06-222389-0
I really don't want to sound like those sensory-deprived little girls who would insist on their Tumblr graffiti walls that a romance hero looks just like Benedict Cumberbach and they rip apart anyone who dares to claim that fictitious character as a husband because he is theirs. That is so undignified. So, just imagine me sniffing haughtily like Dame Maggie Smith as I'd tell you that, if I were to - just hypothetically - confess that I've fallen in love with a male fictitious character, maybe - maybe - one of the guys in my non-existent top ten list is Leopold Dautry, the Duke of Villiers.
Three Weeks With Lady X arrived at my doorstep as I was thinking of catching up with this author. The last time I checked, I have a couple of books of hers in my pile of unread books, and the last time I checked, the author and I were on pretty good terms. How did I somehow overlook those books of hers? Well, this things happen, I guess, just like how sometimes you leave your child behind in a bus stop, only realize her absence on her tenth birthday. When I discovered that this book features Leopold's oldest son as the romance hero, I put my shovel aside, left the mountain of books alone, and sat down to read.
Lady Xenobia India St Clair may be the daughter of a marquess, but she exists in a unique position in late 18th century England. Her late parents were... moon-worshipping hippie artists, let's just say, who found the world in one another and had very little affection left to spare for the daughter. When they died, Xenobia was left destitute with nowhere to go. Fortunately, she was soon taken in by her godmother. Since then, she has rebuilt her dowry by fixing other people's household. She is an interior decorator, headhunter for household help, procurer of marvelous artworks and furniture, and more. Basically, if you want your house to be renovated and decorated to be the most fashionable one around, or you want to replace your current crummy household staff with the cream of the crop, contact Xenobia and she"d do it>
Thus, Xenobia is only barely respectable - she is tolerated by society only because they all want to hire her. She knows when to be imposing - usually to impress male clients - or to be more demure and unthreatening - so that ladies won't feel that she'd steal their husbands and marry their sons. Her exclusivity makes her in demand, and she knows how to charm and win people over.
She's a bit stumped when it comes to her newest client, though. Tobias "Thorn" Dautry is the illegitimate son of her friend's husband, but the household treats him and the Duke's other by-blows as beloved members of the family. Thorn's early years weren't pleasant, however, and perhaps they have shaped him to become what he is today: an imposing guy used to getting what he wants, but at the same time, he is blunt and lacks social polish. Think Sebastian, Lord Dain minus the excessive debauchery and you're getting there. He wants to marry the divinely beautiful Laetitia Rainsford, whose family is desperate enough to overlook his pedigree, and he has bought a home that should be renovated and furnished with... everything nice and shiny. That's where Xenobia comes in.
It's just three weeks of professional work, that's all. What could happen in such a short time?
I adore Thorn. He doesn't have the breathtaking emotional depths of my dear Leopold, but to be fair, Leopold's character was built over several books. He's smart, but he's also such a lummox that he makes me want to both pull his ears until he apologizes and give him a spanking or two. I love Xenobia. She's exactly what I like: confident, knows her own worth, and does something for herself instead of whining about kittens and old women.
And their interactions are fabulous. They bicker and argue like a long-time married couple who would call one another bastard and bitch with all the fondness their hearts can muster, and I can't enough of this. Xenobia and Thorn feel lust between them, naturally, but there is also a strong sense of camaraderie here that makes me believe that these two genuinely like one another. He's crude and blunt, but I get this strong sense that he likes her. She gives back as good as she gets, an annoyed scowl on her face, but when she thinks that nobody is watching, she smiles as she remembers his antics. The chemistry is there, but so is the bond of mutual likeness, the kind that makes you tolerate and even adore the spouse's little habits that you would normally find obnoxious in other people.
Even when they finally have sex, despite the fact that they both believe that he would marry the fair Lala, I am fine with it, as both parties know what they are getting into - the standard one night to last forever deal that is found in every other historical romance - and they have convinced me so far that they would be sensible.
I am so wrong.
You know the embarrassingly positive last few paragraphs? That applies to the first half of this book. The first half is beautiful. It makes me want to do stupid things, like dancing like an idiot all over the house because I feel so, so stupidly happy for these two twits. I would have given this book a keeper grade if the story ends right there, no ending notwithstanding. The first half is every reason why anyone should read a book by Eloisa James.
The second half is, in comparison, garbage, especially when I compare it to the previous half. The characters turn into irritating idiots. Xenobia starts wailing that she will never marry because the guy doesn't say the L word, even if her reputation, life, and dreams all crash to pieces as a result. Hey, if she wants to be an idiot martyr, may as well go all the way, right? These two start refusing to talk or, when they do talk, it's to argue over one another without anybody listening. Every tedious cliché associated with characters refusing to communicate or behave sensibly is present here.
Xenobia undergoes a complete personality switch. In the first half, she has no reason to believe in love and plans to select a husband the same way Thorn selects a wife: look, compare, and pick the best one her money can buy. And yet, after she has lost her brain completely - along with another piece of tissue - she starts babbling about how it's love or else. What brings about this change in perspective? I've no idea. This low-grade Xenobia 2.0 just shows up in the story, and I want to cry. Thorn doesn't come off well in this second half as well, but at least he's still somewhat in character. Someone has replaced the Xenobia I like with Random Stereotypical Avon Historical Romance Heroine Nitwit #2,876,110.
At the end of the day, I still harbor some goodwill for the first half of this book, which is why I am giving this book a higher score than it deserves. I'd still recommend folks to at least read through a few pages in the first half to experience the magic of those moments. Just be careful - the magical carpet ride won't end well. Still, it's like a love affair with someone who was so good for both the heart and soul when the going was good - sure, the ending of it all sucks, hurts like hell, et cetera, but sometimes, I find myself recalling the better moments, and I smile despite myself, wistfully thinking about things that could have been.
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