by Sabrina Jeffries, historical (2013, reissue)
Pocket, $7.99, ISBN 978-1-4767-0822-5
'Twas The Night After Christmas was first released in hardcover in 2012, but you know me, I'm too cheap to buy hardcovers so I'm reading this book only about a year later when it is re-released as a mass market paperback. This is a Christmas story, after all, and, in my jaded experience, most Christmas stories by bestselling authors tend to be rushed "family reunion" stories that are rarely satisfying. This one is, to my pleasant surprise, an actual romance story instead of a family reunion thing, but the annoyances in the plot far overshadows the actually decent chemistry between the hero and the heroine.
Sabrina Jeffries can write heroines that are on the judgmental and sanctimonious side, but Camilla Stuart is easily one of the most long-nosed biddies I've come across from the author. Camilla is a widow who has found employment as the companion to Lady Devonmont. It's a nice job, as her employer adores Camilla's son Jasper and is willing to keep the boy's existence a secret from the man of affairs of Lady Devonmont's son. Therefore, Camilla gets to have her son around instead of leaving the boy to his unpleasant uncle's care, and she also enjoys working with the lady.
She can't bear the thought of the older woman's constant sadness over the son that never wrote or called, however. When Christmas approaches and she discovers Lady Devonmont privately weeping over the sad state of affairs between her and her son, Camilla decides to write to the son, Pierce Waverly who is also the Earl of Devonmont, and tells him that his mother is going to die so he has better come by ASAP if he wants to see her one last time.
Well, Pierce shows up alright, and he is not at all happy to learn that his mother's companion has pulled a fast one on him. Camilla also learns that the situation between him and his mother is far more complicated than the "useless ingrate son and his long-suffering mother" drama she envisioned herself to be the heroine in. Will she pause long enough in her long-faced judging of everyone around her as creatures with imperfect morals to experience the jollies of the hero's wandering tongue and fingers? It may just be a great Christmas ball this year...
Pierce and Camilla are familiar archetypes. He is the man who is confident that he will never love again because he's confident that his parents did him wrong, but he'd like to have Camilla as his mistress, blah blah blah, while she thinks she is plain and plump, her late husband was a wet rag, and she'd do everything in the name of Standing Up For Her Loved Ones and worry about the consequences later because she is so feisty that way. Oh, and sex is okay but marriage is a no if there is no love involved.
However, these two have an intense chemistry and sexual tension that remind me of the author's better books in the past. The two characters do click despite coming off as stale characters, and they do have some great moments where they exchange barbs and have fun in one another's company. It is unfortunate that, as the story progresses, these two spend less time having fun and more time getting worked up over a soap opera plot that is more annoying than anything else.
You see, the big mystery is this: since Pierce was eight, his father never allowed him to go home again, instead spending time off from boarding school at an uncle's farm instead. Worst of all, in Pierce's mind, is the fact that his beloved mother went along with his father's mandate. He assumes that his mother is one of those money-hungry wenches that would do anything to keep a rich man's affection, and since his father died and he became the new Duke, he and his mother co-existed in a manner best described as "he would like to pretend that she doesn't exist as much as possible".
At first, Pierce does seem like an unreasonable twit. All these years, and not once does he experience any curiosity to find out why his mother apparently betrayed him. It is only after Camilla becomes the biggest busybody in town that he reluctantly wants to know the reason, so I can only wonder about this fellow. Sure, he was only a boy when he felt abandoned and betrayed by his mother, but come on, he isn't even a little curious? He understands that a woman doesn't have much power back in his days, right, to stand up to her husband without him making her life a living hell?
However, it turns out that his mother is the crazy one in this story. The husband is dead. The son is now a Duke. The secret she keeps will make little impact if she tells him why she apparently abandoned him all those years ago, as it's not like the integrity of the world will collapse or anything like that if she tells and he, you know, doesn't announce the secret to the whole world - and he has no reason to, anyway. But no, she insists on keeping her secret while wailing that she can't understand why he won't forgive her just like that, and she'd rather be a martyr forever because she will never tell... that is, until the story is about to end and she decides to finally tell all.
And the secret isn't that horrifying or embarrassing anyway, as it's not like she sired Pierce after an orgy with tentacled demon goats or something, and he also quickly forgives her when the secret comes out, so Lady Davenmont is easily the most stupid drama queen of the universe. After all that fuss, the least the author could have done is to have that woman keep a really, really shocking secret that she has good reason never to tell. All I get after the whole drama is over is a headache.
Therefore, there are three big obstacles that stand in the way of an otherwise pleasant love story: an insufferable busybody heroine that doesn't know her place and has no self-awareness (she feels offended when Pierce judges her as lacking when she does this to Pierce all the time), a hero that is content to exist in a state of permanent pout for years when he could have easily just read his mother's letters and get some clues about that stupid woman's affections for him, and that stupid woman's determination to be a martyr for this bizarre reasoning that she'd rather have him hate her for being a nasty mother than to have him hate her for being a lousy wife to a man whom her son already hates anyway. It says a lot that the hypocritical and sanctimonious heroine ends up coming off as the most sane person out of this ghoulish trio.
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