The One That Got Away
by Victoria Alexander, Liz Carlyle, Eloisa James, and Cathy Maxwell; historical (2004)
Avon, $6.99, ISBN 0-06-054026-5

I think the cover artist is trying a little too hard to be funny. The cover shows a manacle attached to the wall of what seems like a medieval castle. Ha, ha, The One That Got Away, geddit? Alas, anyone expecting a medieval story in this anthology will be disappointed. This is an anthology of excursions into utmost Regency-era predictability. If you have read enough Regency-era romance novels (or Avon romance novels, come to think of it), you can blindfold yourself, turn up the music, practise belly-dancing to Bollywood's Greatest Hits, and can still predict what the characters will say, do, or think after I give a one-sentence summary of the premise.

The correct title of the anthology should be The Man That Walked Away because despite what the back blurb promises (a man never forgetting the woman who got away), only the hero of Liz Carlyle's anthology meets the promise. The other stories have heroines who forget everything the hero put them through after he walks back in and shags them senseless. But ah, that's love, people, in a place and time where women often confuse lack of self-control and stupidity with shows of nobility and virtue.

Victoria Alexander kicks off the show with The Trouble with Charlotte. Now that she is ready to kick off her widow's weeds and marry again after her husband's "death" six years ago, Charlotte is ready to move on with her life. She declares that she will no longer live in the past. Of course, such show of pragmatism is abhorrent in a romance novel so her husband Hugh reappears and teaches her that she should have never moved on from the past. Hugh had been a horrid husband but after nearly dying in that war against the Frenchies, he decides to stay abroad these six years for the wife's own good. How nice that when she is finally ready to move on he decides to come back and take her back. After one shag, all of Charlotte's doubts evaporate. She has always loved him and somehow this love endures and shines brightly through the years of neglect, infidelity, and what-not, so oh, it's love when he finally shows her what she has been missing all those six years ago! How generous of him. How magnanimous of him to be willing to forgive her for any men she may have done the horizontal with in those six years (because, as he says, it's not as if he is a saint in those six years either). How noble that she has, predictably, remained chaste all those years and her reputation is just that - a "reputation".

Eloisa James' novella has the same premise so I'll just skip order and touch on the aptly-titled A Fool Again next. Genevieve Mulcaster's miserly husband finally kicks the bucket and Genenieve is ready to kick up her legs and party after six years of wifely duties to the miserable old coot. Alas, her husband's will stipulates that she must marry one of his two business partners or she will have to settle for a miserly amount of yearly allowance. And she can marry only after she has performed two years' worth of mourning. Just when Genevieve thinks she has everything in order, her first lover of all of a few hours, Tobias Darby, shows up after his sojourns in India to take her back.

Tobias and Genevieve have a history that Eloisa James keeps modifying as she goes along. First Ms James tells me that Genevieve eloped with Tobias to Gretna Green after she only talked to him for three hours. Later, Ms James tells me that while those two haven't met until that day, Genevieve knows about Tobias' reputation (Tobias' father is a conman preying on the genteel folks) all along and she is fascinated with him, blah blah blah. Anyway, Genevieve's father stopped those two before they reached Gretna Green but unfortunately, those two already did the Deed in the carriage. Genevieve was dragged home and married to the miser Erasmus Mulcaster shortly after. She never sees Tobias again until he walks into her life again one year after Erasmus' death.

Unlike Victoria Alexander's hero who expects the wife to drop everything and run back to him now that he thinks he is finally ready to be a "real" husband to her, Tobias at least has been waiting for her husband to die before he comes back into her life. But like these stories always tend to be, Tobias seems incapable of actually romancing Genevieve. He's all "Woman, I know you can't resist me so I'll shag you senseless, bwahahaha!" and Genevieve, of course, can't resist. I really love it when he tells her, and I quote, that he feels "indirectly responsible" (emphasis mine) for her marriage to Erasmus. Dude, you took her virginity in a carriage while taking her to Gretna Green - how more indirect can you get, Toby dear?

Like the story by Victoria Alexander, Eloisa James' story tries to pass off as true love the heroine's inability to control her desire for That Worthless Man and how this desire overwhelms the heroine's common sense and self-discovery and mutates her into being once more that silly girl who couldn't say no to That Worthless Man. It's like going back to one's bad boyfriend just because one has always been in love with him so now that he seems to be interested with one again, weee, how wonderful love is! Wait, did I say "it's like"? It's exactly what I described! How sad for these women, really.

Liz Carlyle's Much Ado About Twelfth Night is all about misunderunderstandings most contrived (do I sound like Ms Carlyle or what, heh?) and really predictable behavior especially from the heroine. The hero Edward, now Lord Rythorpe, has inherited a bankrupt estate from his late brother, an estate he is now trying very hard to rebuild. His grandmother Euphemia is visiting and she is bringing with her Sophie St James among the members of Euphemia's friends. The matchmaking Euphemia deliberately lets Edward believe (wrongly) that Sophie is seeking to marry Edward now that he is with a title when Sophie once rejected Edward's proposal eight years ago. He is not amused. If you think that is mean, wait until you see "adorable" Euphemia tripping Sophie up so that Sophie falls and has to be caught by Edward. I wonder whether Sophie can sue if Edward actually doesn't care and she ends up with a broken jaw. Wait, Sophie will end up somehow justifying that her fall is entirely her fault, being as she is One Of Those Heroines, so why am I even asking?

Sophie and her brother want Edward to sell them the race horse Twelfth Night. Edward doesn't know much about horseflesh so he isn't aware of the value of the horse in his possession. Sophie hopes to buy it from Edward now that he is in desperate need of cash. Of course, she feels guilty about this so don't worry, all you readers who are constantly vigilant against evil heroines deviating from the formula, although why she has to feel guilty, I have truly no idea.

Because Ms Carlyle wants this story to be a "comedy of errors", an euphemism for "contrived misunderstandings" if you ask me, Sophie and her brother have this brilliant plan of sneaking off to rendezvous in the garden in the middle of the party to discuss their plans. Edward follows Sophie, jealous that she is apparently meeting with a lover, and overhears her discussion with her brother. He mistakes Sophie's discussing Twelfth Night for her discussing his value and is aghast that she is willing to sell herself like this to him. He charges into her bedroom, intent on Angry Seduction (Pout For The Camera, Hon, And Look Sexy), and Sophie, for all her declarations that she knows how to deal with unwanted suitors, realizes that she is still in love with him. So instead of charging him for the milk or at leasting making him pay at a discounted rate, she gives it away for free.

Naturally, it is the best he has ever had. He tells her in the morning how he regrets the sex, meaning that he regrets ruining her reputation, and she of course concludes that he doesn't really want her. Then again, it is too much to expect a sense of perspective from a heroine who gives something she has supposedly been guarding so vigilantly to a man she likes without any promises or certainties. He proposes marriage. Of course she turns him down, like how she turned him down years ago because he doesn't mention the L word. I suppose it will be okay if I tell her I love her even as I beat her senseless because the L word is more valuable than Sophie, more valuable than common sense.

But Sophie's behavior is the norm, really, and Ms Carlyle, like all those writers who happily put women like Sophie on a high moral pedestal, acts as if she has no clue as to how silly these heroines come off as. She writes as if Sophie is the smartest, most honorable woman around to put so much worth on a man's declaration of love that Sophie will rather risk being an unwed mother in those times than to, you know, do the unthinkable and marry for anything but love. (Of course, these authors and their fans are more often than not the first to go on and on about historical accuracy, so what can I say? Sometimes the drama taking place outside the pages of the romance novel is more amusing than the one taking place within the pages!)

To be fair to Sophie, she is at least smart enough in other ways, like managing an estate ably on behalf of her family. Then again, when it comes to making other people happy at their own expense, these women excel at it so there are really no surprises there. The fact that Edward is a truly adorable stiff-lipped man unhinged by passion - at least, right until the ridiculous Angry Seduction scene - is a small compensation to the ridiculous drama of silly behavior taking place, as is Sophie's reasonable behavior when it comes to money, business, and running an estate. The reasons why Sophie and Edward will be good for each other are credible, even if those two's courtship isn't. The best I can say about this wretchedly predictable story is that while it is too long, it isn't long enough to drive me crazy the way a full-length novel would.

Finally, Cathy Maxwell's Nightingale, the only story where the author displays a self-awareness about how overused the premise of her story is. Dane Pandleton and Jemma Carlson were in love, once, until she married a wealthy nobleman, a shocking betrayal that he has never fully recovered from. But that happened a long time ago. Old wounds are reopened when Jemma's brother, in a drunken fit, challenges Dane to a duel and Jemma shows up at his place to plead for her brother's life. These heroines never buy their brothers a bigger gun, they always charge to the hero's place instead at night, do they?

Cathy Maxwell however tries to subvert the overused elements in her short story and make them her own, just like how she always does in her full-length stories. "If you've lived as long as I have with men whose lives are dictated by the bottle, you'd have little pride left. I have learned in this life that one does what one must," Jemma tells Dane when he expresses disgust as how she is willing to sleep with him in return for his sparing her brother's life. Jemma also realizes that "the weak were cunning creatures, and Jemma had no doubt her mother had known matters between [Dane and Jemma] would come to this, to her bartering all she had left to offer" when "her mother had begged her to come to Dane".

But while Ms Maxwell doesn't pretend that such barter is anything but unsavory, a fact that I really appreciate, she chickens out from exploring this aspect of her story by having Jemma telling herself that she also wants to see Dane and sleep with him all along so, hey, this is still cool. If she still wants to see Dane, why should she wait for so long to do so? While the other authors would easily try to tell me that Jemma is being noble and selfless and Jemma's mother is just cute and adorable, Ms Maxwell doesn't sugarcoat things or insult my intelligence. Jemma comes to her senses when she realizes all along that she has let herself be a pawn in everyone else's games and she has to stop finding reasons to justify their actions. In short, she realizes that she has to stop being a martyr. Dane's epiphany is less convincing, with him realizing that he loves her so, so much after he sleeps with her and realizes that it's the best he has ever had. Then again, maybe it's a guy thing, hmmm.

This is why I have always enjoyed Cathy Maxwell's stories even when I can't really say that I find them keepers. She is an author who is always so attuned to her characters that she knows when they are being stupid and when they are being noble. She also never insults my intelligence because Ms Maxwell doesn't pretend that her characters are noble when they aren't. No, when her characters are acting like idiots, she tells things as they are, exposing the warts to the reader, and then make an effort to redeem these characters and make them come to their senses. It is hard not to enjoy myself when it's obvious that the storyteller respects her readers and works at subverting familiar elements in her stories to make them uniquely hers. Since Cathy Maxwell is selling very well, she makes a case in point for how an author can still conform to the formula and rake in the numbers without coming off as Yet Another Template Regency Historical Author.

In the end, while all four stories conform closely to familiar Regency-era conventions, only Ms Maxwell seems aware of how silly some of these conventions are and subverts them, mutates them, twists them, and makes them enjoyable for the reader while delivering enough credible drama for substance. If the quality of the stories in this anthology is any indication, Ms Maxwell is the only one who gets how things should be done when one wants to conform to the formula of the genre. The others are merely puppets on the bandwagon.

Rating: 73

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