Gabriel Fairchild’s valor during battle earns him the reputation of hero, but costs him both his sight and his hope for the future. Abandoned by the fiancée he adored, the man who once walked like a prince among London’s elite secludes himself in his family’s mansion, cursing his way through dark days and darker nights.
Prim nurse Samantha Wickersham arrives at Fairchild Park to find her new charge behaving more like a beast than a man. Determined to do her duty, she engages the arrogant earl in a battle of both wit and wills. Although he claims she doesn’t possess an ounce of womanly softness, she can feel his heart racing at her slightest touch. As Samantha begins to let the light back into Gabriel’s life and his heart, they both discover that some secrets — and some pleasures — are best explored in the dark …
This month’s TBR challenge is Romance Classics, a classic book, classic author, classic trope/theme etc. That’s rather an embarrassment of riches! The classics of HR that sprang immediately to mind were ones I’ve already read; Lord of Scoundrels, Flowers from the Storm, Whitney My Love and the like, so I discounted those – and got stuck. I then remembered that Smart Bitches, Trashy Books has done an occasional series which asked “which books should I read by X?” (X being an author with a large number of books to their credit), so I hopped over there and eventually found a book that’s often recommended and is perhaps regarded as one of the best in the genre – and one that’s been languishing around on my Kindle for a while, unread, Yours Before Dawn.
It’s not an especially long book, and I was so enthralled by it I read it in two sittings on the same day.
The story revolves around Gabriel Fairchild, Earl of Sheffield, who – unusually for the eldest son of a noble house – served in the Navy and saw action at Trafalgar. During the course of the battle, and in a desperate (and obviously unsuccessful) attempt to save Nelson’s life, Gabriel was injured and lost his sight due to a severe blow to the head. Returned home, the woman he loved deserted him and his family has no idea what to do with him. He’s angry, frustrated and resentful, he blunders around without caring about the amount of damage he does to the furniture or himself, and shows absolutely no desire to adjust to his situation. The servants are scared of him, he barks at anyone who tries to help him and is very much a lonely “Beast” figure, holed up in his childhood home of Fairchild Park.
At the beginning of the story, his butler and housekeeper are interviewing a young woman –Samantha Wickersham – for the position of nurse to his lordship. None of the nurses they have engaged so far have stayed around for very long, and they are becoming desperate. Samantha tells them that she has worked as a governess, and most recently with wounded soldiers at a London hospital, and they are persuaded to employ her. All is practically settled, until a series of bangs, crashes and bouts of yelling signal the Gabriel’s approach. He is surly, rude and orders Samantha to leave, but she refuses. He needs her help and she’s going to stay to give it, whether he wants it or not.
At first Samantha faces opposition not only from Gabriel but from his staff as well. He can’t tell light from dark, night from day, and has ordered the curtains perpetually closed as there is no point – for him – in opening them. When Samantha tries to get the staff to help her to open them, clean, tidy and re-order the furniture in the rooms so Gabriel can navigate his way around without destroying either it or himself, they are reluctant to go against their master’s express wishes. So Samantha embarks on the task herself, eventually winning the staff to her side.
Gabriel is stubborn, sometimes to the point of going against his own self-interest, but I got the impression that part of that is related to his refusal to accept the fact of his blindness; as if making adjustments to his life and learning to live without his sight mean that he has given up hope and accepts he will never see again.
But Samantha won’t let him drown in self-pity, and proceeds to do and be exactly what he needs in order to stop him in his tracks and bring him back into the land of the living rather than the merely existing.
The relationship between the two protagonists develops at a naturalistic pace, and is one of the best written I have ever read. The dialogue is stupendous, full of humour as it zings back and forth between them, and underscored with a growing tenderness and affection. For instance:
”Weren’t you supposed to be back in London by now, plying your tender mercies at the bedside of some grateful sailor who would make calf’s eyes at you and propose as soon as he was back on his feet?”
“And where would be the challenge in that? … I much prefer squandering my mercies on ungrateful bullies with beastly tempers. You know, if you wanted me to stay, there was really no need to cut your throat. You could have just asked nicely.”
“And ruined my reputation for beastliness? I think not.”
And later in the same scene:
Of course, you’re not entirely perfect,” he added, nodding in the direction of the chair. “You do snore in your sleep.”
“And you drool in yours,” she retorted, daring to touch a finger ever so briefly to the corner of his mouth.
“Touché, Miss Wickersham! The lady’s tongue is as sharp as her wit. Perhaps you should summon the doctor before I start bleeding again.”
The sexual tension between them is simply off the charts. But it’s completely in character, too; even when Samantha is drooling over the sight of Gabriel’s physique, there’s an injection of humour that feels completely right:
“Samantha studied Gabriel’s broad shoulders and muscled forearms, struck anew by what an imposing man he was. He could probably snap her delicate neck between thumb and forefinger. If he could find her, that is.”
Gabriel is a delicious hero, gorgeous, charming, witty and clever with a vulnerable side which he masks with rudeness and arrogance. Ms Medeiros gives the reader valuable insight into his situation, both physically and emotionally when she allows us to see the difficulty he experiences doing ordinary things like handling cutlery and eating a meal, and when we’re privy to his hopes, fears and frustrations.
There’s a sense, throughout, that Samantha is hiding something, and when the truth is revealed, at about three quarters of the way through the book, I can’t say I was completely surprised. But as I read, I started to wonder if I’d somehow strayed into a completely different book! Although I think the characterisation remained consistent given the situation that the Gabriel and Samantha were now in, the tone of the book seemed to change completely, and I had to knock my grade down a bit because of it.
In spite of that, though, this is still a book I’d recommend most highly, for the depth of the characterisation, the warmth and sensuality of the romance and the sheer brilliance of the dialogue.