Ezra Seton is struggling to make ends meet since the death of his parents has left him and his siblings nearly destitute. To make matters worse, Ezra was in love with a man who could share in physical pleasures, but could not share his heart. In fact, the man flees to the continent after declaring to Ezra his heart has been cruelly, churlishly broken. Adrift and poor, Ezra is forced to turn to an employment agency whose only offerings come from the very man who drove his lover off—one Mr. Robert Demme.
Thankfully, Ezra can eschew contact with Robert because he is actually in the employ of Robert’s cousin, Ambrose MacBean. Ambrose is famous for having been consigned to a lunatic asylum, yet Ezra can plainly see the man is no raving lunatic. He is rather a meticulous scientist with little patience for the confining pleasantries of high society. Despite having to share space with the cold-hearted Robert, Ezra finds he enjoys working with Ambrose. Indeed, Ezra seems to excel as secretary where numerous others had previously failed.
More surprising, however, is the slow revelation that Robert is not the fiend Ezra first takes him for. Rather than resenting the curtailed social calendar available to him and instead of being a fiend towards his eccentric cousin, Ezra observes Robert responding to his cousin as an equal—with sensitivity and earnest. Before long, Ezra finds he must reevaluate his poor opinion of the man. He gets his chance as the lot of them make a dash to rescue a distance cousin of Ambrose, one who suffers a similar fate as Ambrose himself once had. Instead of merely warming what had started as an icy accord between himself and Robert, Ezra finds them thrown into a blaze of passion…but unsure if there is more to it than likeminded men merely taking comfort when offered.
I found this book to be quite enjoyable. The narration is a good mix of back-and-forth between Ezra and Robert. Each perspective helps form a solid picture of the characters’ qualities. In particular, I enjoyed how differently the two men evaluated Robert’s actions. Robert himself plays down every act of goodwill and acts as if they are motivated by personal benefit or just plain common sense. Ezra, on the other hand, often attributes his actions to Robert’s secret sense of justice and fairness. In effect, the former sees his behavior as nothing special while the latter sees it as an indication Robert is a good man.
There’s also the way these two shift their mental image of one another. The initial set-up is a take on enemies to lovers. To expand on the synopsis above, we start with Ezra down on his luck financially and nursing a twice-broken heart. When Ezra finally snags a job, he’s dismayed not only that it’s in the same household as Robert, but that the man is cooly witty and rather attractive. Given what he has heard about Robert from Francis, Ezra is understandably wary despite the pleasing package. Robert, on the other hand, is bewildered by the sheer aloofness with which Ezra regards him. The man is positive he’s never met Ezra before and, in polite society at least, Robert had made something of a name for himself as a gracious host.
I really enjoyed the slow burn between these two. We are well into the story when the facts start coming to light about each man’s connection to Francis. It was when those details finally started to bubble up that Ezra starts to warming up to his employer’s cousin and Robert begins to cool his goading remarks. Better still, the two didn’t just come to an immediate revelation and start fawning all over one another. I rather like seeing them start by breaking down their walls (and let me tell you, that sounds TRITE AS HELL but it was thankfully never worded so dully in the book) and building up a trust between the two.
One thing I gut-reaction wanted to critique was the usage of the Francis character. By turns, he’s the element driving them apart then bringing them together. He is kind of background pivotal, yet it’s not until the last quarter or so of the book that we actually meet him on-page. Initially, I was kind of put off by having such an important role relegated to more of a footnote in terms of on-page time. As I think back over it, however, I rather think it’s quite clever how the author works him into the story…the man, the myth, the legend (in his own mind, at least). It’s always fun to realized you’ve been emotionally manipulated by a minor character in significant ways. I might even go so far as to say it’s downright devious.
The only actual critique critique I have is that, although the story is set in the 1880s-ish, the period doesn’t seem super pertinent to the story. Apart from a few situations requiring transport by carriage rather than car, there wasn’t much that I could discern to cement the characters in this time period. While I cannot say this is a definite drawback, I was left with a far more nebulous concept of time. Even just a few period-specific references to historical facts or people, the clothes, or the manner of speech would have gone a long way towards making me remember we’re 130-odd years in the past.
If you’re a fan of enemies-to-lovers type stories and/or stories where you can appreciate how these two characters come to realize they’ve got that spark, this would be a great book for you. Even though I found the story nearly devoid of meaningful historical context, I wasn’t much put off by it, so if you’re a fan of historical romances, this would probably appeal to you as well.