Watch out, Susan Johnson and Robin Schone. Behold: another entry in the historical-erotic-romance sub-genre. Absolute Pleasure is a deeply flawed book, yet I can offer a qualified recommendation based on the hero at its center.
Lady Elizabeth Harcourt has spent her life at her father’s beck and call. Despite the fact that she’s the only child of the wealthy Earl of Norwich, she’s never married and feels completely superfluous now that her father’s finally remarried – to a girl ten years Elizabeth’s junior. When a bold and handsome stranger with a foreign accent approaches Elizabeth at the theater, she’s intrigued in spite of her proper upbringing. And when she catches sight of him and another woman practically in flagrante delicto in a box opposite hers, her curiosity (among other things) is aroused. She decides to take him up on his offer to paint her portrait, never dreaming that she’s stepping into a web of deceit and seduction, woven by a master.
Gabriel Cristofore is a swindler. The illegitimate offspring of a married Italian lady and the ne’er-do-well fourth son of an English nobleman, he’s spent his life traveling with his father throughout Europe, painting and seducing the ladies of various courts and capitals. The pair live off of Gabriel’s commissions, plus anything he can wheedle out of his paramours, and it’s time now to see how well they can do in British circles. Acting on a tip from his father, Gabriel sets his sights on Lady Elizabeth, but he’s taken aback by his reaction to her. Soon, he learns that while her father may be rich, Elizabeth has no money to call her own, and he knows that he should drop her and find another mark. He tells himself this even as he persists in his seduction of the unsuspecting lady. He’s never come close to falling for one of his subjects; sex has always been just another part of business (albeit a very pleasant part). Yet Gabriel senses that with Elizabeth, it’s much more than that. He continues to see and sketch her, even though he’s afraid to give his heart away, knowing that once he’s finished her portrait, it will be time to move on to another woman and another source of income.
In short order Gabriel’s talked and teased his way under Elizabeth’s skirts, and once she overcomes her initial bashfulness there’s no stopping her from seeing, and having, as much of her lover, as often as she can. But then Charlotte, Elizabeth’s spoiled brat of a stepmother, discovers evidence of the liaison and carries the tale to Lord Norwich. He’s in a snit, because his housekeeper (and long-time mistress) Mary Smith has become entangled in a romance of her own, with an old nemesis of the earl’s. Norwich’s world is falling apart, and he’s got to do something – but what? And how will Elizabeth react to her father’s interference? Gabriel is given one chance to prove that his affair with Elizabeth is more than just a business arrangement: can the better part of his nature overcome his past?
Gabriel is one of the most refreshing and honest heroes I’ve encountered in a long, long time. No fake rake here: this is a guy who’s described as enjoying a good swindle, one who makes no bones about how he earns his money, an unapologetic roué. He doesn’t lose all his amoral qualities the minute he sees Elizabeth, and the struggle between his head and his heart held my interest. Deep in his soul he dreams of marriage, but his more practical self keeps reminding him of not only the disparity in their social positions, but also his “career,” where there’s no room for a wife.
But a story needs more than a strong hero – no matter how terrific he may be – in order to succeed, and several things bugged me about this book. First of all, there’s a huge logical flaw at the center of the plot, and that’s Elizabeth’s unmarried status. It wouldn’t matter if she were plain as a pikestaff – among the ton she’d be a prime matrimonial catch because of her father and his money. The (to my mind, rather weak) reason offered for her spinsterhood is that her father “needs her around” to be his hostess and run his household. It would be more likely, given what we see of Lord Norwich, that he’d have sold Elizabeth off to the highest bidder a long time ago, with no consideration for her feelings.
Elizabeth is a more than adequate heroine (intelligent without being a bluestocking, compassionate without being a pushover, assertive without being selfish), but I thought the author wasted time and story on the earl and his young wife. Charlotte is a petulant shrew, and Lord Norwich is a selfish boor. They are neither the primary nor the secondary couple in the story, and the addition of their points of view to the story struck me as superfluous. They were loathsome enough when seen through the eyes of the other characters.
The writing suffers from adverb-itis and overuse of exclamation points. The prose borders on purple at some points (I’ve never read a description of a woman’s genitalia as a “succulent abyss” before; that’s right up there with “love grotto”). Much of the dialogue has an anachronistic ring to it: how likely would a Regency-era lady be to tell a servant, “You’re fired”? Or that the servant would later say to the lady, “Don’t even think about it”? Or that a character would think, “Get a grip on yourself”? The multiple points of view are distracting, and I could have done completely without seeing anything through the stepmother’s eyes. I do have to admit, however, that I enjoyed the secondary romance between the housekeeper Mary and her unlikely swain.
The book is hot, hot, hot, and let me warn you that there’s some vulgar language, not so much as to be really offensive, but enough sprinkled throughout the text that some readers may be put off by it. The sex is pretty graphic – but hey, what do you expect? The hero’s made his living basically as a gigolo with a palette, and he’s eager to employ both his skills. If you’re in the mood for a steamy romance with a hero who’s not exactly run-of-the-mill, give this one a shot. You may find yourself forgiving the author for a lot of missteps, just for the chance to meet Signore Cristofore.