Unlacing Lady Thea
Unlacing Lady Thea is a truly charming road-trip story featuring two well-drawn and engaging protagonists who had known each other as children, but drifted apart following the hero’s aborted wedding. Long-standing friends who fall for each other is a trope I particularly enjoy, which obviously predisposed me in the book’s favor; but when, in the opening pages, the drunken hero strikes up a conversation with the kitchen cat and utters the immortal line:
A gentleman does not wash his balls in the study.
I knew I was in for a fun read.
Rhys Denham, Earl of Palgrave is twenty-eight, and, after being jilted at the alter six years before, has made the most of his bachelorhood. He’s got a bit of a reputation with the ladies (there aren’t many heroes in historical romance who haven’t!) but is also a responsible landowner, and a supporter of reform who takes his duties as a member of the government seriously. He has decided that it’s time he settled down and being of the opinion that emotional entanglements such as that crazy little thing called love are needlessly messy, has made a list of the attributes he wants in a wife. Because he plans to honor his marriage vows, he wants to find himself a woman who attracts him, but he doesn’t want one who will “live in his pocket” or protest about the idea of their leading more or less separate lives. Before he starts his search, however, he’s decided he deserves a bit of a break and has organized himself a year-long tour of Europe, given that Napoleon is now under lock and key and travel on the continent is possible again for the first time in years. The trouble is, he’s been having second thoughts, both about being away for so long, and about what he’s planning to do when he gets back – hence the drinking binge the night before his departure.
When his old friend, Lady Althea Curtiss turns up on his doorstep completely out of the blue, asking to travel with him as far as Venice, Rhys is stunned by both her presence (they haven’t seen much of each other in the past six years) and by the impropriety of her request. Thea has left her father’s roof because he is so desperate to be rid of her that he is going to force her to marry some old duffer. Her money is tied up in trust, but can be released on the say-so of two out of her three trustees, and having gained the agreement of one, she now needs to seek permission from a second, her godmother, who currently resides in Venice. Thea knows she is plain and ordinary, but believes she deserves better than to fall into the hands of a fortune-hunter and is determined to make her own way in the world – and for that, she needs money. Spinsters of independent means had more options open to them than those with no money, so Thea can be sure of a place in society if she remains unmarried.
Being more than three sheets to the wind, Rhys reluctantly agrees to let Thea accompany him, knowing that if he doesn’t, she will likely carry out her threat to hire herself a courier and travel on her own.
He insists she makes herself as invisible as possible when they’re in public, in order to try to avoid the scandal which would break should it be known they are traveling together and not related. Knowing this to be sound judgement, Thea nonetheless bristles at Rhys’ high-handed manner. This adult version of her old friend, she soon discovers, can be overbearing, autocratic and even a bit scary, things she finds just as shocking as the fact she can’t help but notice that he’s grown up, filled out and is gorgeous.
But while Rhys notices that plain, gangly, all-elbows-and-knees Thea has rounded out nicely, he can’t immediately connect the physical reality of her with the tomboy he’d grown up with – and when he finds that his body is way ahead of his brain, he’s both incredulous and disgusted with himself. Yet he can’t ignore the vivacious young woman Thea has become, no matter how much he wants to.
Thea is a truly wonderful heroine. She is no-nonsense, funny and intelligent, often knowing exactly the right thing to say to get herself out of a difficult corner. She’s one of those characters who embraces life, prepared for both the potential for joy and the risk of heartbreak. She’s practical, but a romantic at heart. Even though she’d been disappointed by a suitor who – it turned out – her father had practically bribed to marry her, Thea believes in true love and is adamant that finding a man who truly loves her is the only reason she will ever marry.
Rhys and Thea are perfect for each other, something which is clear right from their first scenes together. There’s a terrific chemistry between them, they are comfortable with each other (apart from when they’re in the grip of almost uncontrollable lust!), and their interactions show a true depth of affection and understanding, born of long-standing acquaintance. Rhys is handsome, charming and a little bit naughty – although I did want to slap him once or twice for the length of time it took him to actually see Thea. Even though he finds himself physically aware of her womanly curves straight away, he dismisses it as mere lust and determines to ignore it, because of course, he can’t possibly feel like that about his tree-climbing, frog-hunting, childhood companion. Besides, she deserves love and he doesn’t want emotional entanglements.
But when he does finally see her, the consequences are explosive: I think Louise Allen has written one of the sexiest M&B Historicals I’ve ever read! At the same time, she has developed and maintained a strong emotional connection between the hero and heroine which endures even when they’re both treading carefully around each other, afraid to reveal their true feelings.
I liked the fact that Thea doesn’t suddenly turn into a beauty once she buys herself some nice frocks and has her hair decently styled. She ‘s never going to be pretty, but Rhys gradually comes to find her zest for life and her strength of character devastatingly attractive and to see that his “ordinary” friend has turned into an extraordinary young woman.
Unlacing Lady Thea is a very well written and engaging romance in which the central relationship captivated me from the outset. It’s a quick, but emotionally satisfying read, full of humor and sensuality, and I finished it with a big smile on my face.