Wooing the Wrong Woman…
Henry Middlebrook is back from fighting Napoleon, ready to re-enter London society where he left it. Wounded and battle weary, he decides that the right wife is all he needs. Selecting the most desirable lady in the ton, Henry turns to her best friend and companion to help him with his suit…
Is a Terrible Mistake…
Young and beautiful, war widow Frances Whittier is no stranger to social intrigue. She finds Henry Middlebrook courageous and manly, unlike the foppish aristocrats she is used to, and is inspired to exercise her considerable wit on his behalf. But she may be too clever for her own good, and Frances discovers that she has set in motion a complicated train of events that’s only going to break her own heart…
It Takes Two to Tangle is the first in a new series by this author, and is a wonderfully crafted, character-driven romance in which two intelligent, kind, and emotionally fragile people find each other amid the round of parties, balls, and shallow people that make up the ton and the circuit of society events.
Henry Middleton is twenty-six and has returned from the Napoleonic wars crippled, having completely lost the use of his right arm. While trying to put a brave face on things, he is daily reminded of things he is no longer able to do – little things like hold a knife and fork, or a cup and saucer and be able to actually drink the tea, or carry flowers to a lady’s house and knock on the door without dropping or crushing them.
Worst of all, before the war he was an aspiring artist, but being right-handed means he can no longer paint or write. He is temporarily residing with his older brother (Jem) and sister-in-law, who love him very much, and who are so grateful to have him home in (almost) one piece, that they fail to see the changes that have taken place within him. They encourage him to try to pick up where he left off and return to his former place in society, and that includes finding himself a suitable wife from amongst the ladies of the ton.
For Henry, though, finding himself the right wife is about more than just ensuring himself some long-term happiness and companionship. There’s also the sense that he wants to show the world that he’s just as much of a man with one arm as he was with two; a determination which is understandable, given his circumstances, but which, by the end of the book, he has come to see is misguided.
His sister-in-law, Emily, has singled out the reigning beauty of the ton, Lady Caroline Stratton, as the perfect match for Henry. A widow of some nine years, Caroline is amusing, rich and very popular – and the strategist in Henry knows he will need an edge if he is to be able to win her. So he asks her companion – who is her cousin – Mrs Frances Whittier for some advice. Frances is also a widow, having lost her husband in the early days of the war, but unlike Caroline, she has no money of her own, having been disowned by her father (a baronet) when she married a mere innkeeper’s son against his wishes. Frances and Henry hit it off immediately – she’s clever and witty, and very attuned to him, sensing that he’s having trouble adjusting to civilian life.
It’s clear, too, that Frances is very attracted to Henry, but while he enjoys her conversation – in fact, the air between them fairly crackles during their low-key but flirtatious exchanges – he is focused on Caroline, having decided that she is exactly the woman to ease his path back into society. Of course, Frances – and the reader – can already see that Henry is more attracted to the idea of Caroline than to Caroline herself, but Frances agrees to help him because, as she later says, she just wants him to be happier.
There’s already an element of Cyrano de Bergerac about the story, which is further reinforced when Frances writes Henry a letter telling him how much she’d enjoyed their conversation and is looking forward to furthering their friendship. It wasn’t the done thing for a lady – even a widow – to write to an unmarried gentleman, so she signed the letter “A Friend”. All the clues as to her identity are right there, on paper, but Henry is so wrapped up in his determination to court Caro that he can’t see what’s under his nose, and immediately assumes the letter is from her. But he has no way to answer her letter. Although he’s begun to try to write and paint with his left hand, he has not been very successful so far, and doesn’t want to ask Jem or Emily to write his reply. Then he remembers Frances’ offer of friendship – and asks her if she will aid him in finding a way to compose and write a short, but appropriately worded response. Stunned by Henry’s assumption, she tries to correct him – but when he tells her how much it has bolstered his confidence to have received the letter from Caro, Frances finds she can’t disillusion him, agrees to help, and the correspondence continues.
Fortunately, the mistaken identity part of the storyline is not allowed to drag on for too long, and even though Henry still believes the letters to have been written by Caro, he also comes to the realisation that she is not the woman for him.
At several points throughout the story, Frances is on the point of telling Henry the truth about the letters, but does not do so for a variety of reasons – which of course makes it even worse when he does eventually find out. Frances is a very intriguing and sympathetic character, a woman who keeps her passionate, somewhat impulsive nature hidden beneath the prim dresses and self-effacing demeanour of the good companion. While Frances despairs of her willingness to throw caution to the winds for love, I found it to be rather an admirable trait; even though she is mindful of her past transgressions, she still believes enough in love to risk making another mistake.
Henry and Frances are likeable, well-rounded characters who complement each other perfectly in the way they each bring out the best in the other. Both have flaws, both can be hurtful and petty, but those things make them both seem all the more real. The romance between them is a slow burn but is beautifully developed and the love scenes are sensual, while maintaining a sense of realism by not completely ignoring the problems arising from the fact that Henry has only one working arm.
The familial relationships between Henry, Jem and Emily are also superbly written. The book opens with a wonderfully warm and witty exchange between Emily and Henry, and there is a truly beautiful moment towards the end between Jem and Henry when Jem finally sees exactly what his brother must have gone through during the war and what is facing him now.
At its heart, It Takes Two to Tangle is a story about acceptance, moving on and finding the strength to accept one’s limitations without allowing them to rule one’s life. It was an absolute pleasure to read, and I have no qualms about recommending it very highly indeed.