Stephanie Laurens, Mary Balogh, Jacquie D'Alessandro and Candice Hern
2008, European Historical Romance
Avon, $7.99, 384 pages, Amazon ASIN 0061354163
Initially, I thought It Happened One Night was a Christmas anthology. It isn't; though the cover is snowy, the four stories each take place during a different season of the year. The premise of the book is quite fun and original: Each story has the same basic plot elements. All concern couples who get stuck at an inn for one reason or another, and each couple has a prior acquaintance but has not seen each other for ten years. According to the forward, this was Mary Balogh's idea, and I thought it was a good one. The premise is interesting, and each author brings something a little bit different to the table.
European Historical Romance (Regency England) Sensuality: Warm
The Fall of Rogue Gerrard is vintage Laurens. There's a hero who's a bit of a rogue (because, after all, it's his name), a heroine who is an attractive bluestocking and nearly on the shelf, and (of course) enthusiastic sex. Viscount Robert (aka Rogue) Gerrard is forced to stop at in inn because of a relentless rainstorm. He muscles his way into an already-reserved private parlour (over the objections of the innkeeper), takes off his soaking wet shirt, and gets walked in on by none other than his childhood friend and love, Lydia Makepeace. When they recover from their surprise and Rogue clothes himself, Rogue is determined to discover why Lydia is traveling alone. She is actually on a mission to retrieve an ill-advised letter penned by her reckless sister. Lydia has always been the sensible one, and she almost relishes the opportunity to do something exciting. "Something exciting" means she will have to dress like a courtesan so she and Rogue can steal back the letter. In the process, their old feelings resurface, and they realize that they are in love.
Most of this is completely contrived, but that does not stop it from being fun. The scene where Lydia walks in on the half-naked Rogue is a cute and novel take on the more common "I think I'll just pop into the library at midnight in my nightrail" offering. And does anyone really ever have to dress as a courtesan? Not really, but it definitely helps the sexual tension along. For the most part, I liked Rogue and Lydia and really enjoyed the story, contrivances and all. The only thing that really seemed silly to me was the original reason for their parting when they were younger. Rogue actually kisses Lydia and is frightened by his feelings for her - mainly because he believes his destiny is to be a rogue. it's something along the lines of, "I think I love you, but I feel I must be a man slut." I found that sort of ridiculous, but was able to get past it. Probably because of the whole courtesan thing and the sex in the library.
Mary Balogh's story, Spellbound, is also colored by her unique voice. Nora Ryder is a paid companion who finally tells her terrible employer exactly what she thinks of her. Consequently, she loses her job and her pay, and is planning to slink back to London to stay with her brother. She uses the last of her money to purchase coach fare, and then tragedy strikes: The coach careens around a corner and runs into a curricle. Happily, no one is hurt, but the coach will need to be repaired, and Nora has nowhere to stay in the meantime. Even if she did have money, the inn is completely booked; not only are they accommodating some of the stranded coach passengers, but also a sizable crowd in town for the annual May Day celebration. Then Nora is astonished to find herself claimed by the curricle driver, who tells the innkeep that she's his wife. Richard, Lord Kemp, did share a romance with Nora long ago when their fortunes were reversed. Nora's then-wealthy father was his employer, and Richard and Nora eloped. They were intercepted by Nora's father and brothers, and forcefully parted. Soon thereafter, Nora's father lost everything, and Richard inherited a title and ample income. On this second meeting, both Richard and Nora are proud, and each feels that he is the wronged party. As they spend time together, they realize that they have both changed and matured, but their attraction remains.
Balogh has written many a plot centering around a Big Misunderstanding. Some of them work, and some don't. This one works quite well, partly because the story is short (so there's no risk of belaboring the whole scenario), and partly because the reasons for the misunderstanding are completely credible. I liked both Nora and Richard, and felt that Balogh really showed how they matured and changed - and deserved to be together in the end. Most Balogh fans should really enjoy this one.
Most anthologies have a weak link, and in this book, it's Only You by Jacquie D'Alessandro. In this case the heroine is Cassandra Heywood, Countess Westmore. Recently widowed, Cassandra is coming back to her parents' home. She deliberately stops at the Blue Seas Inn (even though her destination is nearby) because she wants to see the owner. Ethan Baxter used to work in her father's stables, and he and Cassandra were close friends growing up. He listened to her chatter about her upcoming marriage, quietly stewing in jealousy all the while. Shortly before her marriage, he abruptly left her father's estate and sought employment elsewhere. When they see each other again, Cassie is no longer the laughing girl he used to know; years of abuse and neglect have changed her. But she is also bolder, and cares less for society's good opinion. They renew their acquaintance and give in to the desires they have always harbored.
Although I did find the class difference to be a tough obstacle, it wasn't really the main problem with the story. Mostly, I just couldn't get past the language, which seemed flowery and stilted. The love scenes read like old-school purple prose, which was an annoyance. But really I found nothing particularly natural about the way these two interacted, and I just couldn't buy into their relationship.
On the other hand, From This Moment On by Candice Hern was an unexpected delight. I reviewed her once before, years ago, when she was first making a transition from traditional Regencies to longer European Historicals. The book I read then was merely okay, but I loved this story. The heroine, Wilhelmina, is currently a duchess, but her origins are much more humble. Captain Sam Pellow shares them; they both grew up in the same Cornish fishing village. He had lost both parents when he was young and supported himself as a fisherman, and she was the daughter of the local blacksmith. They intended to marry but were cruelly separated when Sam was impressed by the navy. Believing Sam to be dead (and cast out of her home by her parents), Willie had few options open to her. Her beauty attracted the attention of an up and coming artist, and she became a high-priced courtesan. When Sam came home and discovered what had happened, their interaction did not go well, and a subsequent one was little better. In the intervening years, Willie marries one of her protectors, and Sam married the daughter of one of his mentors. When they meet again (both victims of the bad weather), both have matured and are able to relate to each other as adults. They share the stories of their lives and find that they each have kept tabs on each other. Through the years, heartbreak, and hurt feelings, the love that originally brought them together endures.
The plot and the two main characters are largely responsible for this story's success. I simply loved Sam and Willie, who are utterly believable, unique and interesting. Their divergent paths have caused them to grow as people, and it's fun to see them come together. Admittedly, I am getting older myself (I don't have one foot in the grave, but forty is a lot closer than thirty), and that's probably given me a new appreciation for this type of story. But strong characters still need an engaging plot, and this one was spot on. Willie takes the lead here, manipulating events to prolong Sam's stay at the inn. It all makes for a delightful, pitch-perfect read.
Grade: AThe grades average out at a B, but my recommendation is really somewhat stronger than the grade would suggest. Three of the four stories are worth reading, and the Hern is simply outstanding. The premise on the whole is inventive and different. I'd consider It Happened One Night to be well worth anyone's time.
-- Blythe Barnhill
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