It Takes Two to Tangle by Theresa Romain reminds me a lot of a high school rom com; it’s all about realizing the “cool” kids don’t matter, and the handsome hero falling for the popular girl’s best friend. If you’re into that kind of thing, particularly the “less cool” girl winning out, then pick this book up ASAP. If, like me, you prefer the hero to be a little more mature, it may grate on your nerves a bit.
I’ve been teetering on the edge of my Regency Romance Saturation Point, but I had to read this book because it features one of my favorite tropes—the Tragically Wounded Hero. It also has a great opening line:
It was no good. The canvas still looked as though a chicken had been killed on it.
Henry Middlebrook, youngest son of an earl, is just back from war. An aspiring artist, he’s trying to learn to paint, and to live, with the use of his left arm only. His right arm was irreparably damaged in the battle of Quatre Bras (there’s irony for you). Henry feels like damaged goods. He’s horribly self conscious of his right arm hanging uselessly by his side. He’s also uncomfortable with the fact that his sister-in-law, the Countess of Tallant, is determined to see him married off this season. She drags him to a ball where he meets Caroline, Lady Stratton, and Frances Whittier.
Caroline is a rich and beautiful widow—all blonde hair and green eyes. She’s the toast of the ton, with bachelors vying for her attention and hand in marriage. Frances is Caroline’s cousin and companion—she’s not an ugly duckling by any means, but she isn’t traditionally beautiful. She’s also poor, and depends on Caroline’s charity to survive. She’s treated politely by society, but is regarded as a servant.
So basically, Caroline is the prom queen, and Frances is her cousin and bestie who works on the yearbook. No one notices Frances, but she’s awesome. She introduces herself to Henry:
Lady Stratton—a guinea-gold vision, as painfully beautiful as Emily had told him—simply stared [at his arm] dumbstruck. The woman at his side recovered first. Darkhaired and olive-skinned, she had a roguish look as she extended her left hand to shake his. “I’m pleased to meet you, sir. I am Lady Stratton’s cousin and companion, Mrs. Whittier, and I am generally thought to be terrifying.”
I loved Frances. She’s witty, cynical, and a great deal of fun. She doesn’t care much for convention, and she calls it like she sees it. She likes soldiers (her late husband was one), and couldn’t care less about Henry’s arm. She thinks he’s very handsome. So clearly, she’s the right match for Henry.
Except he’s a doofus and doesn’t get that yet.
Henry sees beautiful, blonde Caroline and thinks, “Bingo! There’s my ticket to acceptance by the ton!” He’s very emo about it:
I cannot stand it if they speak of it [his arm]. But I cannot bear it if they don’t.
Surely Lady Stratton must want a man who is whole. But after living through the hell of Quatre Bras, surely I’ve earned the right to pursue whatever—whomever—I desire.
He decides that he will win Caroline’s hand, and therefore prove to the world that he is still good enough. It made me sad, honestly.
Meanwhile he and Frances strike up quite a rapport. There is a palpable, sizzling attraction between them, but Henry ignores it to pursue Caroline. He sees her as beautiful, objectively, but he doesn’t feel the same desire for her that he does for Frances.
Henry and Frances share an evening of witty banter, while Caroline more or less keeps to herself. The next day Henry receives a letter signed only “Your Friend.” The writer of the letter details how much fun she had at the ball with Henry and how she hopes they can keep up their acquaintance. It is obvious to everyone in the fucking universe this letter is from Frances, who actually spent time with Henry at the ball. Henry, however, has his head up his ass and thinks the letter is from Caroline.
Henry invites Frances over—she thinks because he got the letter and wants to be pals and maybe more (she didn’t sign it because a widow sending letters to a bachelor is apparently inviting scandal). Instead Henry says “Hey, look at this cool letter Caroline sent me! You’re her bestie, how can I get her to hook up with me? Can you pass her this note after math?”
Stupid, stupid Henry.
And poor, poor Frances. I was crushed for her. She’s so embarrassed that she doesn’t reveal she was the author of the letter, and instead teaches Henry to write left-handed.
Did I mention how awesome Frances is? She’s funny and smart, and she doesn’t care what other people think of her. Wadsworth, one of Caroline’s other suitors and the token douche and villain in this book, takes pains to humiliate Frances and remind her that she’s servant and therefore beneath him. At one point he drops a tray of sandwiches, making it look as though Frances did it. Instead of being embarrassed she retaliates with ease:
“Since I’m Lady Stratton’s companion,” she said in her sweetest voice, “it is my responsibility to help her callers, even if their behavior is asinine and rude…Not that I refer to you, of course. I am sure in your mind, it’s perfectly normal to throw sandwiches onto the floor. Shall we leave them right there, or would you prefer to arrange them into a pattern? Do you mean to eat all of them? Shall I get you a cup of tea for you to wash down your floor sandwiches?”
And then she dropped the mic.
I love this girl. She’s got her head on straight—except when it comes to Henry.
Against Frances’ better judgment, the correspondence continues. Henry keeps thinking the letters are from Caroline, even though she is cool to him in person, and Frances knows he’s misunderstanding the situation. Henry starts to fall in love with Frances without even knowing it. Frances won’t clarify things because she’s too ashamed and because she’s the poor cousin of a rich widow, not a great match for the son of an earl. She knows Henry is above her.
I really enjoyed the tension the letters created. Frances and Henry are such a great pair, they share such wonderful dialogue—both spoken and written—but are kept apart by embarrassment and misunderstanding.
When Henry and Frances meet up again at another ball, the sexual tension between them has ratcheted up to nuclear levels. They share a particularly hot, almost-sex scene secreted away in a corner of the assembly hall. Frances is the one who initiates the kissing, who takes matters—and Henry’s erection—into her own hands. Even if she knows she can’t have Henry long-term, she wants a night with him.
This part of the book irked me. I liked that Frances was a woman who was willing to go for what she wanted. I didn’t like that Henry allowed thinks to progress nearly to intercourse before throwing the brakes on the sexy-train. I mean, he knows he’s pursuing Caroline. He knows it’s wrong to be diddling her cousin in the backroom—it’s not fair to either woman, but he just can’t help himself. Once again, a hero is lead astray by his wayward peen.
To his credit, it’s that same night that Henry—finally—realizes he has feelings for Frances. At this point, Caroline, Henry’s brother, his sister-in-law, his best friend, and the butler know he’s in love with Frances. It’s probably been elegantly scrawled on a men’s room wall somewhere “Henry Fancies Frannie.” Henry and Frances are the only two people in the whole wide world who are oblivious.
But it’s not just their obtuseness keeping them apart. Frances is worried that when Henry finds out about her past—particularly the way her marriage ended—he won’t love her. She lied to her last husband and it drove them apart, and now that she’s lying to Henry about the letters, she’s afraid the past is repeating itself.
Henry is still way too concerned about how he’s perceived by society for having a bad arm. He’s also guilty about the men who died under his command at Quatre Bras. Sometimes his preoccupation with how the ton perceived him read as juvenile to me. I felt, a little bit, that a man who saw the horrors of war up close would have a sense of perspective that would enable him to care a little less about what the dandies in London thought. Henry had a lot of growing up to do in this book, and I wanted him to get off his ass and do it quickly.
For all my bitching about Henry, I quite liked this It Takes Two to Tangle. It captured me emotionally, and I loved, loved, love the heroine. I also really, really wanted Henry and Frances to get together. It elicited the same reaction in me as my favorite Jane Austen books do “Jesus you two! Can’t you just FIGURE IT OUT AND GET TOGETHER!?” Even though I knew this book came with a HEA guaranteed, I was afraid somehow Henry and Frances would wind up apart. Romain’s ability to draw me into the story that deeply is impressive.
If you’re a Regency fan who likes unconventional heroines, pick this book up for sure. If you like the Tragically Wounded Hero, like I do, pick it up. If you need your hero to really have his shit together, you may want to avoid it. Henry gave me heartburn sometimes, but the great conflict, and a kick ass heroine, kept me reading.