Eloisa James's When Beauty Tamed the Beast is in my Personal Top 10 Romance List for many reasons, the least of which are that I’m left feeling like I know these characters, have felt their pain, their love, and their triumphs. This book is one of the brightest jewels in Eloisa James’s crown. In the afterword, James explains that Piers, a cutting-edge historical physician with a bad leg and surly demeanor is, unsurprisingly, based on the character Dr. Gregory House (who is based on Sherlock Holmes for those not in the know).
As would be expected with a main character based on House, Piers is irritable, handicapped, drug-addicted, and, put quite plainly, an ass. But readers, along with Linnet, learn to love those things about him and see Linnet as the yin to his yang, the light to his darkness.
Piers has a long way to go, though, and has always put his patients before anyone. When an epidemic of scarlet fever breaks out in the village and the castle-cum-hospital, Piers sends his parents and Linnet away to protect them against infection. Unfortunately for Linnet, Piers takes the opportunity to protect his heart as well.
****Beware of SPOILERS for When Beauty Tamed the Beast****
He turned to Linnet. She was as delectable, and as remote from him, as the fairy queen herself. Stupidly, foolishly, he tried to memorize her: the sweet little nose, stubborn chin, curling eyelashes, flawless skin. Which just made him think about the effects of scarlet fever. “You must leave,” he said. “Now, quickly.”
“I will.” She had her hands clasped before her. “Oh, Piers—" She took a step toward him.
“No.” He said it fiercely. “I need you to be gone. I can’t think about you, or worry about you.”
“Forever,” he continued. “Go back to London, or to France, or wherever you want.”
“No!” she gasped.
“It’s over between us,” Piers said, feeling a strange sense of remoteness. Upstairs, his patients were dying, and even so, his heart was twisting; even so, the glean of tears in her eyes felt mortal. “You always knew it would be the case,” he added, more gently. “We have no future.”
Linnet took a deep breath. Piers was leaning heavily on his cane, exhaustion in every line of his body. “I don’t want to leave you.”
“You’ve got no choice,” he said. “God almighty, Linnet, how many ways can I put this? I don’t want to marry you.”
“I haven’t decided whether I wish to marry you,” she said, trying for a small jest in the face of nightmare. “I think I might.”
“The possibility is not in question. It never was, not really.”
Linnet look at him, the shadow of his beard, the shadows under his eyes, and knew she loved him. That she would never love another man. Piers’s fierce wit had tempted her, but it was his passionate heart that had won her.
“Go on,” he said impatiently. “I don’t want to marry you. I won’t marry you. Is that clear?”
“No.” she saw the pain in his eyes and could recognize it for what it is. “We belong together,” she said with a feeling of perfect truth. “You will never love anyone but me.”
“You are blinded by your own claims to beauty,” Piers said, avoiding what she had just said. “Will you please leave now, before I say something I regret?”
But Linnet’s heart was flying on a wave of passion and love. “I love you!” she said again. “And you love me.”
“I don’t give a damn,” Piers said.
Linnet leaves, as sure that she loves Piers as she is that he is a stubborn ass. She takes her broken heart and leaves the manor while Piers’s estranged parents stay on the grounds to try to patch together their own broken relationship (some very swoonworthy/angsty scenes happen between this couple that make them almost as compelling as our main hero and heroine).
It quickly becomes apparent that Linnet has become sick with the scarlet fever Piers is desperately (and successfully) trying to beat back at the castle. Unfortunately, she’s not in the care of her beloved and brilliant Piers but two ignorant and greedy innkeepers located not far from the castle. As Linnet lay dying, her thoughts circle around one person: Piers.
The terrible heat was coming now, drawing her back into that feverish whirlpool where she couldn’t hear or see anything. But still, water…
The pool glimmered in front of her, exquisite blue, cool and refreshing. And there was Piers, his lean, sardonic, lovable face grinning at her.
For that moment, before the fever called for her again, she concentrated on loving him, the way he made his fierce way through life, in agony but never stopping .The way he smiled. The intelligence in his eyes.
He never gives up, she thought.
Soon, and we hope soon enough, Piers realizes that Linnet had interacted, quite closely, with patient zero of the scarlet fever epidemic. Frantically, Piers searches for Linnet knowing only two things: he must heal her and then marry her (finally realizing that he’s in love with her). Piers finds her in the worst place, and the worst state, possible—a chicken coop where the lovely Linnet is covered in chicken droppings, her hair matted, and her fever and color high with the worst symptoms of scarlet fever. The sight of Linnet brings Piers to his knees—literally and figuratively.
The woman at his feet had no resemblance to his laughing, beautiful Linnet. But the doctor in him came to the fore, pushing aside his grief, dropping his cane so he could kneel beside her and take up her wrist.
For a moment he despaired of finding a pulse, and then he felt it: thread and weak, but there. “Linnet,” he said, hand on her cheek, seeing not her ravaged skin or tangled hair, but the shape of her dear face, the way she curled slightly to the side as she always did in sleep. He loved her; he loved her so much that his heart was breaking.
The heartbreak continues as Piers works tirelessly to save his love’s life. Finally, even this icy, detached man cracks—but allows no one to see:
Carefully, carefully, Piers hoisted himself onto the bed, lying on the top of the sheet so he didn’t touch any open wounds. But he had to hold her, so he tucked the sheet around her neck and then wrapped an arm around her waist.
And if the sobs escaped then, if the sheet grew salty and wet, there was no one to see but the moon.
Linnet’s body heals, but her spirit is broken. She believes she is no longer beautiful because her skin is scaly, peeling and red from ravages of the disease. Piers has yet to tell her that he loves her or that he doesn’t care about her looks because it was never her looks that made him love her.
“You’re too ugly. I never make love to ugly women. I could never love an ugly woman.”
For a split second Linnet’s heart stammered, and then she realized what he was really saying. “And I, my lord, can only love a man who can carry me over the threshold. Who can promise me that he will never, ever touch laudanum and will certainly never raise his voice. Can you do that?”
His eyes met hers: deep, lustrough, intelligent—loving. “In the inn I carried you down the hallway and over the threshold,” he said, and his voice was as husky as hers. “Does that count?”
“I might be beautiful again someday,” she offered. “Or not.”
He rolled to face her, and their eyes met in a way that had everything to do with love, the kind strong enough to snatch someone back from the grave, the kind that never fades and never fails.
The kind that has nothing to do with beauty, temper, or damaged legs.
“I can’t promise you that I won’t lose my temper,” he said.
“Though I have a feeling you may have changed me for good. I might not be such a beast anymore.”
I can’t promise that I won’t die and leave you alone. I think I forgot to say thank you for saving my life.”
“I love you,” he said, his voice catching. “When I thought you were going to die, I wanted to die. And as soon as you climbed out that damned window, I wanted you back.”
She ran a hand softly up his cheek. “I’m back.”
Throughout When Beauty Tamed the Beast, the reader is left wondering “Eloisa, how are you going to bring them back from this?” The answer is skillfully and subtly, with an intelligence that would make Piers proud, a beauty that would rival Linnet, and a sadness that would break the most hardened of hearts.
Jennifer Proffitt is a Midwest transplant to New York City. She spends most of her time reading and writing about romance, but you can follow her other adventures on Twitter @JennProffitt. She works for Heroes and Heartbreakers and Criminal Element.