The Chick: Cynthia Merrithorpe. When her stepfather promises her in marriage to a cruel, perverted peer to clear a debt, she decides to fake her own death - and use the subsequent excess of free time to search the nearby cliffs for treasure.
The Rub: Her childhood BFF - in whose empty house she's currently hiding - decides to return to his estate after a ten year absence.
Dream Casting: Rachel McAdams.
The Dude: Nicholas Cantry, Viscount Lancaster. The combined double-whammy of learning his fiancee is cheating on him and his childhood sweetheart just died inspires him to return to an old country estate to get his bearings.
The Rub: His dead sweetheart's not so dead, but still as debt-ridden as he is, making a marriage financially impossible.
Dream Casting: Christopher Egan.
Nick: I'm marrying a woman who hates me, and my best friend died! FML.
Cynthia: I've had to fake my own death to escape an Evil Rapist Fiance and search for gold - but now my best friend's returned to his estate! FML. Er, OOOoooooOOOO! I am a scaaAAAAaaary ghOOOOosssst! *waves hands*
Nick: Good GOD, am I in a Julia London novel?!
Cynthia: What? No! I mean--
Nick: Busted. Whatevs. Let's search for booty!
Cynthia: Which kind?
Nick: BOTH kinds.
Nick: Awesome. Now we can get married.
Cynthia: Uh, NO.
Evil Rapist Fiance: Yeah - because she's marrying me instead, pretty boy!
Nick: *shoots him*
Evil Rapist Fiance: *dies*
Cynthia: NOW we are getting married.
Romance Convention Checklist
1 Broke Aristocrat
1 Fake Ghost
1 Unhappy Fiancee
1 Evil Rapist Pervert Fiance
1 Secret Treasure
1 Instance of Shrinkage
1 Negligent Step-Parent
Several Terrible Nude Sketches
1 Noticeable Neck Scar
Two Knotted Cravats
The Word: Normally, I wait a while before reading another book by the same author. I have a huge TBR to work through, and with an author I like, I don't want to burn through all their books and leave myself with nothing new of theirs to read. However, One Week As Lovers by Victoria Dahl (whose A Rake's Guide to Pleasure I read in January) had such a pretty, pretty cover and was a brand-new, spine-uncreased library paperback, so I decided to fudge my regular reading rules.
Like Rake's Guide, while both protagonists get their share of exploration, the narrative tends to lean slightly more towards one character's particular development. In Rake's Guide, it was Emma, who fought her sensual nature. In One Week, it's Nick. He and Emma struck up a friendship in the previous book, but marriage was out of the question - Nick's father died leaving him and his family wallowing in debt, and neither his brother nor his mum are willing to give up the lifestyle to which they've become accustomed, so he needs to marry an heiress.
At the opening of the book, Nick seems all set - he's handsome, popular, and affianced to a wealthy, if middle-class, woman. Of course, nothing is as it seems: his fiancee hates him and is in love with someone else, his charming manner is just a decade-old front, and no one in London truly knows who he is beneath the golden hair and pretty smile. As the cherry on top of his Life Sucks Sundae, he receives a letter from the housekeeper of one of his country estates informing him that Cynthia Merrithorpe, a close childhood friend, has died. With financial pressure and familial duties closing in around him, Nick decides to travel to the estate, Cantry House, to relive memories of happier times before he shackles himself into a loveless marriage.
When he arrives, he's further horrified to learn that Cynthia committed suicide to escape marriage to the elderly Lord Richmond - a sadistic monster involved in Nick's own dark past. Then the ghostly spectre of Cynthia starts wandering through his house, leaving grisly tokens of her death (she jumped off a cliff into the ocean): salt-stained hair ribbons, strips of seaweed, etc.
Okay, so pretending to be a ghost isn't Cynthia's most brilliant plan, but she has little choice. She refuses to marry Lord Richmond, but with her family still deeply in debt to him she fears her little sister Mary will be forced to take her place. Thanks to a journal written by her deceased great-uncle, she believes a fortune in gold is hidden somewhere in the cliffs around Cantry house, where she's been hiding to promote the idea of her "death." Once she finds the gold, she can pay off her family's debt and use the rest to book passage to America. Nick's unexpected return ruins all her plans, so she hopes to frighten him away.
When this "ghost" trips over her own feet while "gliding" across his bedroom floor, Nick realizes his friend is very much alive - and is overjoyed. Instead of sending her packing, he agrees to keep her secret and help her look for the treasure as well.
I'll say this outright: do not be daunted by the incredibly silly madcap plot that, in a light Regency author's hands, would involve ridiculous clues written in Latin, rambunctious children, cantankerous but secretly kind old ladies, and perhaps a small animal or two - a puppy, perhaps. Yes, Cynthia's basing her family's financial future on the journal entries of an eleven-year-old boy, but it's really only a formality to bring Cynthia and Nick back together in a situation reminiscent of their childhood escapades, when they were both innocent and untarnished.
It's this return to innocence - or at least a semblance of innocence - that allows Cynthia and Nick to re-kindle their affection despite the ten years of loss and pain that both feel is an impediment to their being together. Cynthia has always held a torch for Nick, even after he abandoned the country for London when he was fifteen, but she's convinced that he's a proper, polished Viscount now, with a sophisticated gentleman's idea of honour and little memory of or appreciation for country ways.
As for Nick, the horrific events in his past have forever scarred him, and he exists behind a smiling golden mask of the pretty society charmer. Cynthia knew him as the boy he was, before he left Cantry House and the tragedy that followed, and in essence she's the only woman left in the whole world who remembers who he really is, beneath the mask, beneath the taint of abuse.
Like A Rake's Guide, One Week also has a sexual subplot. Both Cynthia and Nick have humiliating sexual encounters in their pasts that have shaped their outlooks on sex. Cynthia is a complex character, seemingly contradictory, but wholly real. She's goofy but practical, independent but also self-conscious of her country upbringing. The circumstances behind the loss of her virginity gave her very frank and casual ideas about sex but in many ways she's still a pupil of the Eloisa James School of Anatomical Ignorance. Meanwhile, Nick struggles with certain desires born out of his reaction to his abuse, which, since they've emerged as a result of his past, he views as ugly and wrong.
So, is One Week As Lovers better than A Rake's Guide to Pleasure? Hell yeah. It took a while for me to warm up to A Rake's Guide because the introductory chapters seemed a little too conventional, and the romantic relationship developed much later than the sexual relationship - but that's more of a personal preference than a literary flaw since the sexual relationship between Somerhart and Emma is a narrative arc all on its own.
With One Week As Lovers, the romantic development is just as important as the sexual relationship - both are at the forefront. There is a deep undercurrent of sweetness and affection between Nick and Cynthia that's immediate and powerful - and I'll freely admit I'm a sucker for that stuff. I'll take sweet over spicy any day, but Victoria Dahl manages both. Think of the literary equivalent of a gingersnap. A sexy gingersnap. In this case, One Week has the perfect cover. I mean perfect. Look at it. It's tender and sweet and evocative of a deep emotional connection - but let's not fool ourselves. The folks on the cover are also two minutes away from being nekkid.