The More I Read. . .


There is not one big cosmic meaning for all, there is only the meaning we each give to our life, an individual meaning, an individual plot, like an individual novel, a book for each person.

- Anais Nin

 

 

No, aliens haven't abducted me. But I have been absent from here for a long time. Uploading reviews just became so unwieldy and fraught with problems that I just . . . Well, I gave up on BookLikes. I am still reviewing romances over at Goodreads. 

 

Thank you, each and every one of you, who followed, liked or commented on the reviews I posted here at Booklikes. I appreciated so much each and every comment, and especially your patience when I became a little too wordy. :-) 

 

One of the good things to come from my frustration here was I finally stopped threatening to start my own blog and just did it. It's still pretty much a work-in-progress, and I'm not posting too regularly just yet, but I would love to chat with y'all over there. Click here if you'd like to say "Hi. 

 

 

Anyway. It's a new dawn. It's a new day. And I'm feelin' good. 

 

SPOILER ALERT!

The Mésalliance or He's Come Undone. . .

The Mésalliance (Rockliffe) (Volume 2) - Stella Riley

Every time I've decided to sit down and write this review, I became distracted. I'd pull out my copy of The Mésalliance, notes, and highlights, and then a strange thing would happen. I'd begin to read a passage I loved and pretty soon the review, and all else to be honest, was forgotten. Three times now, this has happened. One minute I would have a million thoughts waiting to be translated to somewhat coherent sentences, and then poof! I was lured right into reading the entire book. Again. And again. So perhaps distracted is not exactly correct. Ensorcelled? Fascinated? Mesmerized? Bewitched? All of the above? Now, I have battened down my hatches, girded things that need girding, clicked my ruby red slippers three times, and I'm hoping some sort of review will really happen this time. No guarantees, however.

 

I love/adore Georgian historical romances. It's an era that's so rich, so flamboyant and lusty and liberated. And, oh, those exquisite fashions for both men and women - hoopskirts and panniers, corsets, petticoats, clocked stockings, snuff/patch boxes, red-heeled shoes with diamond buckles, and, of course, longer hair for men. *sigh* Where's my DeLorean? How could I not enjoy The Mésalliance? And I did. At last count, three times. Oh, yes, indeed. How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.

 

Like the first meeting between Tracy Giles Wynstanton, fourth Duke of Rockliffe, and Adeline Mary Kendrick. She's just a sixteen year old wild child, and he's a twenty-eight year old seasoned soldier. Tracy has not yet assumed the ducal title and is visiting his "most distant and least favourite estate" in Northumberland, Redesdale. He escaped the heat of London while on furlough from an injury, avoids his garrulous bailiff, Mr. Forne, as much as possible, and is hopeful of returning to his army regiment soon. He's intrigued by the barefoot Adeline as much as he's dismissive of the "untidy child of incredible simplicity" who's "all eyes and mouth and wildly disordered nut-brown hair." Adeline likewise is fascinated by Tracy. Fascinated by his gentleness and kindness and calm reassurance the few times they accidentally meet. Though not experienced with either "gentlemen" or kindness, Adeline recognizes both qualities in Tracy. It's an unusual meeting without any of the banality.

 

Eight years pass before Tracy and Adeline meet again at a house party, and their second meeting holds an element of disappointment and shock at the changes in both of them. After her grandfather's death, Adeline is shunted off to live with her aunt, Lady Franklin, and identical twin cousins, Diana and Anthea (or "Dianthea, the stomach disorder"), shades of Cinderella. Adeline is not treated as family but as a servant at the beck and call of her aunt, intimidated by her Uncle Richard, and subjected to Diana's whims and tantrums. Her aunt and her brother, Adeline's Uncle Richard, scolded, locked away, and then beat the wild, gypsy child in Adeline into submission, but though she conformed and shored up her defenses for self protection, she also discovered a more subtle way to rebel: by combining "apparent docility with an under-current of clever, hard to combat acidity." Tracy ("Rock") is disillusioned to see the "unspoilt, sensitive, and fragile" creature from eight years ago has been replaced with a sharp-tongued, bitter woman. But Tracy doesn't know why she's changed; he merely sees the effects of seven years of having to hide her true self.

 

Meeting long-lashed aquamarine eyes filled with detached irony and set beneath narrow, winged brows, his first thought was that she was changed beyond recognition ... and his second, that he would have known her anywhere. The eyes and the voice were the same; it was only the suggestion of frosted bitterness that was new. (26)

 

All that remained was a cold-eyed woman with a barbed tongue - a fact that left him feeling faintly cheated until he remembered that painful flush, swiftly followed by flight. (27)

 

Likewise, Adeline's memory of the kind, young gentleman is replaced by a man who lashes out at Adeline in his anger and disappointment, words which Tracy later regrets and are a source of embarrassment for him.

 

He smiled at her with what at least two persons present recognized as dangerous benevolence and said gently, 'Perhaps you did indeed have just cause for doubting my ability to place you. After all, I'm compelled to acknowledge that I find you considerably changed.' He paused and conducted a leisurely head to foot appraisal. 'You appear, for example, to have discovered the benefits of wearing shoes - an achievement on which I can only congratulate you.' (27)

 

Adeline recognizes this man, the Duke of Rockliffe, is not Tracy. He is a man of her aunt's social strata, a stranger to her, remote, untouchable. This man with his practiced manner, courtly bows, elaborate mode of dress, snuff box, powdered hair, and subtle sarcasm was foreign to her. Eight years ago, he had demonstrated no artifice. His dark hair, sometimes so black "it glinted blue in the sun", had been natural, without powder. All of the changes are encapsulated in his powdered hair.

 

She remembered wanting, more than anything to touch it - but, of course, she never had. And now he chose to wear it powdered ... and stupidly, illogically, she had felt disappointed. (38)

 

And yet, she knows he was ashamed of the way he humiliated her in front of her aunt and her aunt's guests. And he tries to understand "why" she's different. Through all the conflict in these first meetings, the mutual attraction, whether wanted or not, is never in question. They strike sparks off each other and seem to be perfectly matched, in temperament, in wit, and in intelligence. I didn't even wonder why poor Tracy wasn't sure whether he wanted to kiss Adeline or shake her or why Adeline felt she needed to avoid Tracy.

 

I loved their separate moments of recognition, two moments at different times but that complement the other, moments in which they each see in the other a flash of their familiar selves from eight years ago. The sense of loss is replaced with an affirmation and confirmation of who they were and are separately and what they may become together. It's a reassurance for both that whatever the obstacles between them, they are simply Tracy and Adeline.

 

This time it was no fleeting brush of the lips. This time, he took what he had been wanting to take for a week; and Adeline, stunned as much by the suddenness of it as by the feel of his body against hers, found herself powerless to resist.

 

Slowly releasing her, Rockliffe looked into eyes that were no longer coolly composed but startled, confused and a little shy. Eyes that belonged less to the woman she was now than to the girl she had been eight years ago. ‘Ah,’ he thought. ‘Yes. There you are.’ (87-88)

 

Rockliffe emerged from the breakfast-room. His coat was of plain black cloth and, beneath it, his shirt was open at the neck and worn without cravat or vest. But it wasn’t his clothes that stopped her mid-step and made her forget to breathe. His hair, apparently freshly washed, was unpowdered … and black as a raven’s wing. The air froze in her lungs, something lurched behind her blue dimity bodice and she thought foolishly, ‘Oh. There you are.(116)

 

The Mésalliance is, to me, more Tracy's book than Adeline's. By that I mean, it is his character who undergoes more of a transformation than Adeline. She has to learn to trust, a hard battle and a difficult journey on its own, and it is her sense of unworthiness and lack of trust that allows a blackmail scheme instigated by her Uncle Richard to become the barrier between her and Tracy. It is also at the center of a series of misunderstandings and the impetus for the "Dark Moment", or the "point of ritual death" (Regis, The Natural History of the Romance Novel) and emotional separation between Tracy and Adeline throughout the second half of The Mésalliance.

 

Tracy's metamorphosis, however, is so very dramatic. A major part of my enjoyment of The Mésalliance was watching Tracy with his vaunted self-control, self-possession, charm, confidence, elegance (with just a touch of ennui, don't you know), a man who defines the word "languid" in both deed and word, a man whose rapier wit and laconic manner of delivery comes completely undone.

 

He is a kind man, a patient man, meticulous in his manners, tasteful and a trendsetter in his mode of dress. He is a loyal and supportive friend and brother. He is a man who eschews violence but who can deliver a stinging rebuff in a soft dangerous tone of voice with a modicum of words. For example, Tracy admonishes Adeline to be civil when her aunt and her self-absorbed cousin, Diana, come to London for the season. But, he can't resist one of his double-edged barbs to put Lady Franklin and Diana in their place.

 

And then, as the girls moved away, "Poor Thea is so timid, I sometimes despair of her. I only wish she could acquire just a fraction of dear Diana's confidence."

 

'I am sure you must do,' agreed Rockliffe sympathetically. 'And vice versa.'

 

Lady Franklin continued to gaze up at the Duke with faintly baffled suspicion for a moment and then gave it up. (148)

 

And then there are his snuff-boxes. Ah, me. These little trinkets are not simply accessories to be coordinated with the proper jacket and waistcoat. Be they Sèvres or "silver gilt decorated in the Florentine style", a Wedgwood beauty, a pretty enameled bauble, or a fine old ivory trifle from Paris, these little boxes are his way of deflecting the too personal question, buying time, a relief from boredom, an object of meditation, the opening gambit in a search for information, and a million other uses. In other words, snuff-boxes are to Tracy what the little blue blanket is to Linus van Pelt in Peanuts.

 

Over the course of the second half of The Mésalliance, his closest friendships with two men are strained to the breaking point for no greater reason than he is a man at his wits end trying to court his wife, knowing something is wrong and realizing she won't or can't share the problem with him but turns instead to his friends. The man who cooly dismissed a tempestuous mistress without lifting an elegant eyebrow is . . .jealous. Of his friends, Jack and Harry.

 

'I don’t know what the two of you have quarrelled about and I don’t want to know –but the sooner you make it up, the better for all of us.’ He grinned suddenly. ‘You may not have realised it, but you’re not the only sufferer. It’s making him extremely touchy and putting a nasty edge on his tongue.’

 

‘Dear me,’ drawled a soft, mocking voice, ‘Who can you mean, I wonder?’

 

'I find I object...rather strongly...to both curiosity and interference. And - much though I may regret it - I am quite willing to press the point, if necessary.' He paused, meeting Jack's gaze with cold amusement. 'I'm sure you understand me.'

 

'Oh for God's sake, stop being so damned ridiculous,' came the irritable and largely unexpired retort. 'I've told you before - it'll be a cold day in hell before I let you provoke me into crossing swords with you. And particularly over something like this.'

 

'Still craven, Jack?'

 

'No. Still sensible.'

 

'Ah. And do you consider it sensible to closet yourself away with my wife for a full fifteen minutes?'asked his Grace sweetly. 'For, if so, I believe I must acquaint you with your mistake.' (252-253)
~~~~~~~~~~
Well!’ exclaimed Harry with dry humour. ‘Am I allowed to sit down –or had I best take myself off to the other room?'

 

‘That,’ replied his Grace, ‘rather depends on what you want to talk about.’

 

‘Oh –I’ll be dumb, never fear. Though it would be a damned sight easier if I knew exactly what’s eating you.’

 

‘What is all this?’ asked Lord Amberley, laughing. ‘Do you know, Jack?’

 

‘It looks,’ observed Mr Ingram, ‘rather like a quarrel.’

 

‘Lord, no! Nothing of the sort,’ said Harry, seating himself. ‘You have to talk to each other for that.’ (244)
~~~~~~~~~~~
At a saner level beneath his involuntary jealousy, Rockliffe was well aware where Harry’s heart lay and, although this did not help him in his dealings with Adeline, it did make it possible for him to tacitly heal the breach with his lordship.

 

‘But he made damned sure I wouldn’t dare ask any awkward questions,’ confided Harry later to Nell. ‘Gave me the sort of smile you usually see over a yard of steel and advised me –ever so gently, mind –not to meddle. Then he showed me his newest snuff-box.’ (246)

 

The climax, so to speak, is at a very public venue - the Queensbury House Ball - among a few hundred of the crème de la crème of London Society. Though Tracy gives the appearance of a man in control at the beginning of the evening, dressed in his finest, he's a man who loses every bit of his control in just a few hours.

 

". . . elegantly saturnine in silver-laced black with the Order of the Garter displayed upon his chest and diamonds winking on his fingers and in his cravat. As always, his hair was confined at the nape in long sable ribbons - to which, tonight, was added a narrow diamond clasp; and as had been his habit again in recent weeks, it was thickly powdered." (263)

 

By the end of the evening, he has raised his voice, raised a little hell, lured Diana the viper into revealing her true colors to all and sundry, delivered a look so intimidating to poor Adeline she flees the ballroom, separated the villainous Uncle Richard from a few of his teeth, promised a fate worse than death if Richard Horton and his "hell-born niece" ever come near Adeline ever again, and chased Adeline down to his country estate at Wynstanton Priors.

 

Remember the silver-laced black brocade coat, diamonds, etc.? When he finds Adeline, he's covered in dust from the road, his right sleeve is "partially adrift", the Garter is missing as well as the lace at his wrists. The diamonds are probably scattered like breadcrumbs from London to the Priors. In place of his elegant buckled shoes, he's now wearing top boots, and his hair, still bearing faint traces of powder, is "hopelessly windswept." Tracy, it is fair to say, isn't a happy camper at the moment. He has unraveled in a most spectacular and very public way.

 

"So far, I've lost my temper, my finesse and a particularly fine snuff-box. I've bruised my knuckles, winded my favorite mare and missed my breakfast. But what I have not done is ride forty miles in a guise I can only describe as lamentable, merely for the pleasure of your conversation. Let's go." (280)

 

This is my first book by Stella Riley, and I thoroughly enjoyed every word despite a little disappointment that Adeline was so completely cowed and intimidated by her Uncle Richard and his blackmail scheme in the last half of the book as well as her inability to be honest with Tracy and place her trust in him once and for all. Tracy gave her every reason to believe he would not judge her poorly for the skeletons in her closet, and he generously gave her so many opportunities to enlist his assistance. She justifies her actions as protecting the man she loved, ensuring his name was never tainted with her scandal. I understood that in one respect, and that it led to a more disordered, unraveled, slightly messy Tracy made it a little easier to swallow. I'm ecstatic that there are two more books in this series - The Parfit Knight (Rockliffe #1) and The Player (Rockliffe #3) as well as the possibility of a fourth in the series in the future. Life is very good indeed!

SPOILER ALERT!

Look inside and awaken. . .

Lost Among the Living - Simone St. James

 Photographs. We take photographs for so many reasons. Whether they're framed, placed in albums, displayed in museums or dog-eared photos kept in a wallet, they commemorate and capture moments in time, people, places, events. They are tangible, concrete records of our sometimes faulty, unreliable memories. Photographs tell stories, communicate, document, persuade, help us discover hidden truths about ourselves and the world around us. They are chroniclers of the passage of time, silent witnesses to who we are and were, what we've endured, how time changes us. Roland Barthes asserts in Camera Lucida that photographs do not recreate "what has been abolished (by time, by distance) but attest that what I see has indeed existed." They are proof. Perhaps even evidence, then. All of these things and more.

 

After finishing Simone St. James' Lost Among The Living, I kept thinking of how significant photographs, sketches, and drawings were in relating the entire narrative, specifically an agent of change for Jo Manders, how they defined her and limited her at the beginning of the book, how they helped her cope with fears of her mother's "madness" being visited on her daughter, how they related to the strange, mysterious events at Wych Elm House, how they morphed into the instrument of Jo's autonomy and liberation when all events had been resolved.

 

For three years I had been trapped in amber—first in my fear and uncertainty, and then in a slow, chilling exhale of eventual, inexorable grief. (6)

 

When Jo Manders is introduced, she is trapped. For years, Jo has been the one to untangle the twisted threads of her "mad" mother's increasingly erratic behavior - her mother's restlessness, wandering at night, petty theft, her inability to keep a job.

 

We’d cobbled together food and shelter, somehow, for the first eighteen years of my life. When she was lucid, it was hard, but it was manageable. When she wasn’t—which was more and more frequently as time went on—I existed in a sort of blind panic, unable to think or breathe, pulling myself from one minute to the next, one hour to the next, waiting for some inevitable, terrible outcome, yet fighting it.(10)

 

Behavior that forced Jo to grow up very quickly, become expert at dodging authorities and police and soothe outraged neighbors or strange men her mother followed for reasons only she knew. Bearing witness to her mother's breaks with reality in the stories of a mysterious viscount who shall rescue both mother and daughter and unable to trust anything her mother told her, Jo was very much "trapped in amber."

 

I never knew when she was lying to me—she’d find a photograph of a stranger and tell me it was my father, or she’d tell me of the days she’d traveled with the circus, dancing for the audiences in tights and a pretty tiara. (11)

 

Jo has always had to be the adult, never a child. The photograph Alex finds at Jo's flat the night they meet emphasizes just how perilous and insecure Jo's life was with her mother.

 

What is this?” Alex asked. I glanced through the doorway to see him holding a framed photo, one of the few mementos I kept in the flat.

 

“That is me,” I replied, ducking back into the bedroom and continuing to undress. “Mother had work for a time as an artist’s model, and she convinced the studio to hire me as well. I didn’t last.” I had been unable to sit still, or still enough. I had wanted to sketch instead. He was silent for a moment. The photo showed me in nothing but a simple Greek toga, cut to midthigh, sitting chin in hand on a stool with leaves woven into my hair, the fabric of the toga falling artfully off my shoulder almost to the level of my small breast. “How old were you?” he asked.

 

“Thirteen.” I folded the lavender dress carefully and put it away.

 

I heard a click as he put down the sketch in its small frame. “Dear God, Jo.”

 

“We had to make a living,” I snapped, pulling the pins from my hair.(70)

 

All of Jo's needs and choices were circumscribed by her mother's illness, her needs. Then, as a young woman, Jo's decision to institutionalize her mother as her condition worsened was impossibly hard and left her riddled with guilt. Jo selected the best asylum for her mother's care, the best she could afford, one whose fees to provide quality care for her mother compelled Jo to "type or perish." Even if it meant fending off a sleazy lawyer who couldn't keep his hands or innuendos to himself.

 

She's trapped at first in "fear and uncertainty", fighting for survival and then in her "inexorable grief" after her husband, Alex Manders, is reported as "Missing In Action" having enlisting in the RAF during World War I. Trapped in amber. Because the War Office determines Jo is neither fish nor fowl, neither widow nor wife, there is no pension, and government red tape makes no allowances for a young woman struggling on her own to provide for her mother's care. She's trapped once again in a position she doesn't particularly like as the intermittently paid companion to a difficult and unkind woman, Dottie Forsyth, Alex's wealthy aunt. Once again Jo's needs, Jo's choices, possibilities are narrowed, cut off, and suspended in deference to another person's demands.

 

For months after the end of the war, Jo accompanies Dottie in her relentless pursuit of art not for art's sake, but as the means to increase her wealth. She blatantly takes advantage of families looking for an influx of cash after the war ends, buying low and selling high, in her apparent greed. Jo is there not as a member of Dottie's family by marriage but in the role of a servant, to fetch and carry for Dottie, to make appointments, to handle correspondence, whatever is needed. Now Dottie has decided to return home to Sussex, England, to Wych Elm House, because her son, Martin, grievously injured during the war, is finally healthy enough to return home. There's a part of Jo that's relieved to be returning to England where she won't be forced to watch "tourists blithely lead their children" around the Colosseum or the Eiffel Tower "and snap photographs as if we'd never had a war." It's easy to understand her ambivalence and her sense of overpowering loss seeing the family that she won't have. Alex is gone but these landmarks still stand. Having to bear witness to families that remain intact and whole, the promise of a future in the children are all visible reminders of everything she's lost . There's also a part of Jo that is frightened and uncertain as she realizes she can't be Dottie's companion/assistant forever. Yet another moment she's "trapped in amber."

 

Dottie is proud of her son, proud that he served honorably in the war, relieved that he'll be coming home. One of her favorite pastimes is to corner strangers across the Continent, at every opportunity, even on the steamer while crossing the Channel to "show off" photographs of Martin in his uniform, with an accompanying well-rehearsed narrative of what a dear boy he is and how is coming home to be married.

 

Manders,” she said to me—though my name was Jo, one of her charms was the habit of calling me by my last name, as if I were the upstairs maid—“Mrs. Carter-Hayes wishes to see my photographs. Fetch my photograph book from my luggage, won’t you? And do ask the porter if they serve sherry.” (1)

 

Jo knows Dottie also had a daughter, Frances, a daughter who was mad, who suffered in many of the same ways Jo's mother had. Hallucinations, rages and terrors, wandering aimlessly. A daughter who fell or was pushed from the highest gable at Wych Elm House. Her death was labeled "suicide", but there are many questions and irregularities surrounding the circumstances of her death, "queer cousin Fran [who] had died in 1917" "poor thing", according to one of Alex's letters. Jo is very aware of the absence of treasured photographs of Frances in Dottie's "slender little photograph book with its yellowed pages", six or seven little slices of Dottie's life "trapped in amber." In fact, Dottie never mentions Frances's name at all. Sometimes what's missing is as significant as what is present.

 

What is the significance of the lack of photographs of Frances in Dottie's album and at Wych End? Is it an effort to erase her presence as if she had never lived? A way to forget all the turmoil associated with Frances, her "spells", the horror of her death, the mourning of a life unrealized? Is there an aspect of shame that a member of the Forsyth family committed suicide? Or maybe. . . Maybe they are simply the very painful reminders of a dearly loved daughter.

 

There is a similar lack of photographs in Alex's effects after Jo is notified of his MIA status. Before she left for the Continent with Dottie, Jo endured the painful process of discarding Alex's clothing and sorting through all his personal papers. But strangely, amidst bank records, school records, "all the milestones of his life", she found not one memento. "No letters, photographs, or journals. No postcards or souvenirs from vacations, no notebooks or letters from schoolmates. Not one. The man [she] had married was gone." It almost felt as if Alex Manders' identity had been erased. That the man she had married had never existed.

 

The significance and mystery of the missing photos, evidence if you will, Frances and Alex's existence are inextricably intertwined so as to feel almost one in the same. What really happened to Frances? Did she fall? Jump? Was she pushed? Who was the vagrant murdered in the woods on the same day Frances died? What happened to Alex Manders? Why is there conflicting information about his training and service? Why was his passport photograph in his war file? Why did he lie to Jo, taking authorized leave to visit Wych Elm House, talking to Frances the day before she died but not visiting Jo in London?

 

Pieces are missing, even the pieces present seem ill-fitting. Martin's pre-war photograph and the man Jo meets on her first day at Wych Elm House are jarringly different. In that photo, Martin had Dottie's "narrow, clean shape of a jaw", Robert's (his father) dark eyes and long lashes as well as "the charming ease of his smile", but Martin at Wych Elm House, post war, is a mere shadow of the man he was. The healthy, robust man in uniform has been replaced with "painful thinness of the long-term patient; his cheeks hollowed, his tidy shirt and jacket hanging as if from a clothes hanger in a shop", a man with "waxy pallor" giving the impression of an "oddly familiar stranger [she] could not quite place." Here, the photograph is a rather ghoulish marker of time passing, showing the ravages of ill health, a visual reminder of the horrors of war, the trials endured, a silent witness of a much changed man.

 

Photographs in Lost Among The Living reveal a lot about Dottie, Martin, Robert, Frances, Alex, and Jo. Whether it's chronicling a young girl facing adult choices or a proud mama's photographs of her heroic son as compared to the shell of the man who returns from that war, they are all parts of the whole. Including the missing photographs of a troubled daughter and Jo's beloved husband. These are small moments of time in both Jo and Dottie's lives. Without a doubt, the most powerful allusion is the way St. James utilizes the mysterious camera Alex purchased shortly before his disappearance. The duality of its purpose not only as the instrument for Jo's reassurance of her sanity and but also as the symbol and tool of her future independence was fascinating.

 

Eerie happenings begin as soon as Jo takes her first steps into Wych Elm House. She sees the ghostly apparition of Frances in the small parlor, hears spectral footsteps behind her, is troubled by terrifying dreams, watches helplessly as a menacing mist lies in wait for her at the edge of the woods, hears the low growl of Princer, Frances's imaginary companion/protector. Jo's vulnerability, the primary source of her lack of self-realization, is the persistent, nagging worry and fear that her mother's madness will be her future. It's easy, then, to understand how Jo begins to doubt her eyes, her ears, her sanity. Her sense of isolation is at times overwhelming. The camera with its heavy case, the only item she saved of Alex's and carted with her around the world, becomes her path to answers, a way to prove to herself she is not crazy, and the outlet for her long-suppressed need discover the part of herself that needs to draw, sketch, create.

 

I picked up the camera again, feeling the weight and heft of it. A pulse of excitement went through me. I could use this. I had never considered it before, but if I could buy film and a means of developing it, I could take my own photographs. The leaves, I thought. If I could take a picture of the leaves, I could prove they’re real. The mist that came to me in the night—I could capture it. Or possibly even Frances herself. I’m not mad. I’m not. I put Alex’s camera back in its case, snapped the latches shut, and left the room to ask if I could borrow the motorcar.(100)

 

A visit to the local village, Anningley, brings Jo in contact with a photographer's shop situated next door to the dressmaker's (an interesting juxtaposition of the evolving role of women in the workforce post World War I versus women functioning solely in domestic affairs pre World War I). The photographer shows her how to operate the camera, loans her a tripod, and rather condescendingly offers to show her how to develop her photographs.

 

"Can you teach me to do it myself? The developing?”

 

He gave me the sort of smile men have given women since time immemorial. “One thing at a time, my dear lady. I don’t wish to overwhelm you. Now, the case.” (102)

 

He also shows Jo a photograph in his portfolio of the Forsyth family a few years before Frances died. For the first time, she has proof positive the girl with the pearls in the small parlor had indeed been Frances. In the photo, Robert, Dottie's husband, was not so puffy, dissolute, "like a piece of paper that has been foxed over time." Indeed, he was slimmer, blandly handsome. Dottie, too, was "curiously softer, as if the years between had set the lines of her face in stone." Martin, a young man in the photo, shoulders back with "a confident smile on his face" was more like the photograph of Martin in uniform Jo was accustomed to. Neither image resembled the man she had met earlier.

 

Frances was placed beside her brother, seated on a chair in front of Dottie. She was perhaps twelve or thirteen, wearing a dress with puffed sleeves and a high lace collar. Her face stared out at me, the same face I’d seen in the small parlor—the high forehead, the clear, calm eyes. She was a few years younger than the girl I’d seen, wearing a different style of dress, her hair down around her shoulders and tied back with a ribbon, but she wore a string of pearls around her neck that I recognized. Her face wore no expression, and there were shadows under her eyes. Her gaze was serious and fathomless and somehow sad. I stared at her, captured in silver nitrate and printed on paper. I realized with a jolt that I didn’t just recognize her face—I knew her. I knew something of the fear she suffered, the isolation. I knew it because even though she was dead, she had made me see.(104-105)

 

For the first time, Jo sees Frances not as a terrifying specter, but as a girl "lost among the living", urgently trying to communicate her secrets to someone.

 

I loved that this book is an amalgam of gothic romance, historical mystery, with elements of "woo woo with a purpose." (Thank you for allowing me to borrow that phrase, Miss Bates Reads Romance.) From the sound of footsteps behind Jo but finding no one there, troubling dreams of "something falling past (her) window, the ruffle of a skirt and a sleeve, the fabric flashing" before she startles awake, a ghostly girl appearing in a small sitting room, the "big, angry beast" who howls and roams the woods since Frances's death, the tales of terror preventing the children of the village of Anningley from playing in the woods for fear of hearing a low, throaty growl are all pretty good examples of how Simone St. James conveys the sense of threatening menace from the other side. One of the eeriest scenes is as chilling as it is poignant. It's a scene in which Jo realizes Frances is definitely sending her a message. In other words, "woo woo with a purpose."

 

I stopped in my bedroom doorway.

 

I noticed the bed first: The cover had been pulled all the way down and trailed from the end of the bed like a bridal veil. On the table next to the bed, the shade of the lamp had been removed, and placed next to the bald light—which had been switched on—was a figurine I recognized from one of the glass cabinets in the morning room, depicting Salome cradling the head of John the Baptist in her lap, looking rather sorrowful; I could not think where Dottie had acquired it or why she had thought it worth money. The figure now sat under the glaring light of the lamp, John the Baptist’s unseeing eyes staring upward.

 

The wardrobe door stood partly open, and one of my cardigans had been pulled from it, half in and half out. The waist of the cardigan rested inside, and the neck and arms were drawn out the wardrobe door and onto the floor, the sleeves raised pitifully and eerily lifelike, as if someone inside the wardrobe drew the cardigan in against its will. The room’s only chair had been placed next to the wardrobe, and a pair of my shoes was set beneath it. A set of my stockings dangled empty from the seat to the shoes, one of my skirts lay on the seat, and one of my blouses hung unbuttoned from the chair’s back, the sleeves folded decorously on the lap of the skirt. The entire display, looking oddly like a woman sitting in a chair, was topped with the shade from my bedside lamp, balancing like a misshapen head.

 

Frances saw a door, David Wilde had said. The things she saw coming through that imaginary door were dead. She was showing me. She wanted me to see.

 

“Frances,” I whispered. I looked again at the figure in the chair. It looked withered and dead, inhuman, the head misshapen and eyeless, and yet it was a woman. Posed in a chair with her hands in her lap. Was she standing sentry over the awful doorway? Or mimicking the pose in the portrait I’d just seen? You’ve seen me, the hideous figure seemed to say. I see you. We see each other.

 

I see you,” I said aloud. It was the best I could do. I could not look at the eerie chair anymore. I put the camera down and stood. I found myself staring at the lampshade as if it were a set of features looking back at me. I quickly turned and left the room, closing the door behind me. (107-109)(my emphasis)

 

What began as a way to reaffirm Jo's sanity morphs into something surprising and pleasurable. A creative and psychological outlet Jo had needed for years.

 

When I took photographs, alone in the slowly failing light, huddled inside a sweater and a coat, my feet damp and cold, my pretty dress and borrowed pearls left behind in my room, everything fell away. I did not think about Dottie’s family or my own uncertain future. I did not think about the fact that I could not spend the rest of my life as Dottie’s handmaiden. I did not think about Frances’s mysterious death and who may have pushed her from the roof. And I did not think the thoughts that threatened to consume my mind: that Alex had lied to me. That Alex had come to England without telling me. That he had been seen speaking at length with Frances the day before she died. You met a man, and you married him. But what did you know about him? He was a man, a stranger to me.

 

In the first days after my conversation with Dottie, the thought was like a fist in my gut. I had spent three years with the Alex I had in my mind, the husband I carried in my memories, so certain that the picture I had was accurate. Dottie’s words changed all of that. I wavered between shaky denial and cold fear, brought on by my memory of Alex’s face, his handsome features and extraordinary blue eyes those of a stranger. (121)

 

Jo enjoys the solitude of the early mornings, catching just the right light for her photographs, memorializing a "pretty view on a back road of the border of the neighboring property, a rustic path beneath a proscenium of thick autumn leaves." Or the peaceful almost meditative state that sets in as she walks, watches, and listens in the early mornings. Photos of the sea as it churns through a layer of early morning mist, the "ghostly outline" and sharp "right angles" of the distant Ministry of Fisheries building, "a single boat on the ocean drift[ing] into [her] vision."

 

The dawn light was just perfect, making the edges of everything soft, the mist diffusing the rising sun. (178-179)

 

It's her only chance to just breath and be, to taste freedom, before she faces Dottie's demands every morning at eight sharp.

 

Frances and Jo are in many ways kindred spirits, Jo's isolation due to the madness of her mother, Frances's isolation due to her tormented visions and the thing that watches her as well as their mutual creative talent. - Jo with her photographs and Frances's love of sketching. Frances, in her own mysterious and scary way, ensures Jo finds clues, like her sketchbook, leaving it under Jo's pillow one night.

 

It was a book. A large, flat book, the hard cover gleaming in the moonlight through the window. I touched it tentatively, found the texture of the paper rough. The pages inside were thick, some of them warped, so the top cover did not sit exactly level. I scooted over on the bed, turned on the bedside lamp, and opened it.

 

From the first page, I knew it was a girl’s sketchbook. The subjects were domestic: a vase of flowers, leaves on a checked tablecloth, a cat in the old stables behind the house. There was a profile of Dottie, her head bent over her work at the library desk, and another of Martin in his war uniform. All of them were detailed and clearly rendered, as if the artist had taken the time to catch every detail.

 

I turned the pages. There was a portrait of Wych Elm House, taken from the woods. Another of the vista that rolled down from the edge of the woods to the village, where I could see the spire of the church and smoke rising from some of the chimneys. I pictured Frances—for this was most certainly her work—sitting on the stile in the lane I’d passed only that day, perched for hours, drawing and drawing until her hands cramped and her feet lost all feeling. I could see it so clearly in that moment, it was as if I’d seen her again.

 

I tilted the page with the sketch of the village toward the light, looking more closely. From behind the hedgerow leading to the village she’d drawn a shadow, stretching long and dark, that did not fit with the rest of the scene. A man, perhaps? Or something else? I turned back the page to the picture of the house again and looked at it, too, under the light. There was a shadow breaking away from the main shadow of the house, difficult to see at first glance. And in an upper window, on the third floor, was the shadow of a face in the smudges of pencil, two deep-set black holes of eyes in a white oval.

 

She complained of a face that would appear at that very window. A man begging her to let him in.

 

It watches me.

 

Was it a man? It was impossible to tell. Was this the face Frances had seen in her nightmares, one of the many faces she claimed wouldn’t leave her alone?

 

Strangely excited, I leafed through all the pages of the sketchbook. Some of the pictures had shadows in them; some did not. The drawing of Wych Elm House was the only one that featured a face. Some of the book’s pages had been torn out, the jagged edges visible in the spine of the bound book. From outside my window, the dog with the low, throaty voice barked until the sound trailed off in a whining growl. (159-160)

 

The sketchbook is only the first of the clues Frances leaves for Jo to ponder and puzzle over. Jo also finds a small packet of photographs "tied with a faded ivory ribbon" in Frances's World Atlas for Girls. The first photo is of Frances as a baby, "staring with baffled solemnity into the camera" and on the back, in faint block letters, "Do you love her?" The second photo is again of Frances at about age three, holding Martin's hand in front of Wych Elm House and a bone-chilling message in the same blocky hand on the back: "It watches me." The third and final picture shocks and terrifies Jo for it is the photo Alex had remarked upon in her London flat, the one of Jo dressed in a chiton, of Jo posed at age thirteen. On the back? "Where is your mother?"

 

The photos and Frances's sketchbook reveal a truth in Frances's rantings of visions of dead people, the face at her bedroom window that begged to be allowed in, the thing that "watched" her. What is seen cannot be unseen. Once Jo "sees" Frances, one she "sees" the shadowy figure behind Martin and Frances in the second photo, she knows what Frances has been trying to communicate to her, what she intended her to see. That moment opens up a new world for Jo, gives her a new perspective. One which allows her to forgive herself a young girl's guilt, self-doubt, and resentment of her mother's illness, one which helps Jo reconcile her mother's madness with questions of a mother's love, and gives her permission to live in hope of the future instead of dread, to enjoy life's moments as they come.

 

My mother had loved me the best she could, as much as she could manage. Madness had never stopped that. I understood her better now. I understood what it was like to live in a haze of confusion and fear, and the courage it took to get out of bed every day to face a world that was baffling and sometimes terrifying.(307)

 

In the end, when Frances's mysterious death is resolved, when the questions regarding Alex's disappearance during the war and his lies, half-truths, and betrayals are laid to rest, the evidence, the proof, of all the strange events at Wych Elm House begin to disappear. Frances's sketchbook and the packet of photographs cannot be found, the figurine of Salome and John the Baptist is mysteriously returned to its cabinet, Jo's ruined wet camera is found dry and packed neatly in its heavy case once more. She realizes it was "all being erased as if it had never been." Whether she was as mad as her mother, or whether she awoke one morning to tell a tale of a viscount coming to rescue her, Jo no longer cared. She understood herself better now. She understood her mother better now. She was no longer "trapped in amber", fearing the future, wondering how she would and could continue fighting to survive. In the last paragraph or so, someone asks Jo "What do you want to do?" Six words. But encompassing a world of freedom and possibilities. No one had ever asked before, and Jo had never been free to wonder.

 

I enjoyed the photography,” I said, wondering why the words felt slightly embarrassing. “I found it freeing. I’d like to take it up again.”

 

Not a single second of derision crossed his expression. “You’d like to be a photographer?”

 

“No,” I replied, surprised at how easy the answer came. “I want to learn it and get a studio, and then I want to teach it.”

 

[He] blinked, and his expression relaxed in that way that meant he was looking at something he liked. “You would be very good at that.” (317)

The Tender Stranger

Tender Stranger (Best Of The Best) (Silhouette Romance) - Diana Palmer

After reading several Diana Palmer books that left me scratching my head and wondering why I would inflict such torture on myself, I pulled out some of her older ones to remind me why I keep trying to find a smidgen of the old Diana Palmer magic in her newer releases. I've reread The Case of Missing Secretary (review to come), To Love and To Cherish, The Wedding in White (double ditto), and this one: The Tender Stranger. *happy sigh*

 

Sometimes a walk down memory lane is a good thing as it was here. Of course, I read it a long, long time ago, way back in prehistoric times, definitely pre GR, so I felt I was almost reading it for the first time again. I had forgotten what a little gem it is.

 

Dani St. Clair is 26, a little introverted, a spinster, and a bookstore owner who has, at the urging of her best friend, Harriet, decides to let her hair down, have an adventure for once in her life. That's how she ends up on a crowded plane, fresh from a romance writers' autographing session with a stack of signed romance novels for friends back home in Greenville, South Carolina headed for Veracruz, Mexico. Let me just pause right there for a moment of appreciation. She's a bookseller. A woman who unashamedly reads romance novels. One who carries an armload of romance novels on board a crowded plane. Someone who actually, you know, likes the genre and respects it and defends it, if need be. How refreshing!

 

One of the things that went completely under my radar way back in the dark ages when I read it the first time was the hero's Dutch heritage. I immediately thought of Betty Neels and squealed a little, but my oversight is entirely understandable since my "discovery" of The Great Betty wouldn't happen till many years later.

 

His name is Eric James Van Meer, he was born in Utrecht, and he lived there until he was a teenager. I was pretty excited anticipating the possibility of a Diana Palmer/Betty Neels mashup. Well, it wasn't exactly that but I love any connection I can make to La Neels. Eric "Dutch" Van Meer is a mercenary, expert in knife throwing and logistics, not a wealthy Dutch doctor, and though he can be enigmatic at times, he's mainly a "think it/say it" kind of guy. Plus, there are *ahem* several trips to Brighton throughout the book that surely would have brought a blush or two to The Great Betty's cheeks.

 

"Dutch" is 36, tall, blond, wealthy, and world weary. His past is truly a sad one featuring a former lover who betrayed him at a very high cost not only to himself and but also to his beloved parents. If it had just been the tired old "a woman done me wrong, so I hate 'em all", I probably would have had to pick my eyes up from the floor after they rolled out of my head just thinking of 12 years of sack cloth and ashes for Dutch. Instead, his tragedy and guilt is rooted in his personal actions and the too little/too late discovery of exactly what it cost him to become involved with the wrong woman. That made sense to me.

 

Dani is such a great heroine, a little shy but not afraid to stand up for her principles. In short, this gal has a backbone (something missing in some latter Diana Palmer heroines.) Her self-deprecating sense of humor is endearing without being saccharine or false. When she says she has no illusions about the lack of men in her life, she says it with a surprising cynicism but lacking any resemblance whatsoever to a pity party. She does have a few body issues (large bazooms that garner lots of stares, not pretty except for eyes and mouth, the latter is kind of expected in a romance heroine), but her self confidence grows over the course of the book. I appreciated that a lot.

 

I liked how The Tender Stranger starts off immediately in the hero's POV. It not only introduces Dani immediately making her a sympathetic character (because dear hero is not too kind in his initial impression of her) but it sets up the hero's "I'm so tough" persona so that you know immediately he's going to fall - very quickly and very hard - for Dani.

 

He sighed, watching her. A spinster, he thought unkindly. From her flyaway brown hair to the eyes under those wire-rimmed glasses, from her bulky white sweater down to her long gray skirt and sensible gray shoes, she was definitely someone's unclaimed treasure.

 

He didn't like women. Never less than now, when he was forced to endure this particular woman's company for several hundred miles from San Antonio down to Veracruz, Mexico. He glanced sideways irritably. She was shifting books now. Books, for God's sake! Didn't she know what the baggage hold was for?

 

"You should have reserved a seat for them," he muttered, glaring at a stack of what was obviously romance novels.

 

She swallowed, a little intimidated as her swept over his muscular physique, blond hair and a face that looked positively hostile. He had nice hands, though. Very lean and tanned and strong-looking. Scars on the back of one of them . .

 

"I'm sorry," she murmured, avoiding his eyes. "I've just come from a romance writer's autographing in San Antonio. These — these are autographed copies I'm taking back for friends after my Mexican holiday, and I was afraid to trust them to the luggage compartment."

 

"Priceless gems?"he asked humorlessly, giving them a speaking glare as she she tucked a sackful under her seat.

 

'"To some people, yes," she acknowledged. Her face tautened and she didn't look at him again. (6-9)

 

You can just hear the sneer in his voice at those silly romance novels she's lugging around. Despite his impatience with the "prim little woman next to him", his condescension about her reading material, and his dismissive internal monologue about her presumed chastity and reserve, her "nervous eyes and hands", he can't stop sneaking peeks at her. Particularly, her hands.

 

She had nice hands, though, he thought, pursing his lips as he studied them. Long fingers, very graceful, and no polish. They were the hands of a lady.

 

It irritated him that he'd noticed that. He glared harder at her. (10)

 

But Dani has had just about enough of his attitude, her spine straightens, and soon she's fighting fire with fire.

 

It was one thing to be impatiently tolerated, but she didn't like that superior glare. She turned and glared back at him. Something danced briefly in his dark eyes before he turned them back to the stewardess. (10)

 

"Dutch" has to respect someone willing to go toe-to-toe with him and soon he's appreciating her wacky sense of humor, surprised by her generosity of spirit, charmed by her idealistic outlook and completely reassessing his initial harsh uncomplimentary judgment of Dani.

 

The romance felt a little rushed for me in the beginning and though "getting married in a fever hotter than a pepper sprout" sounds fun and exciting, you have to wonder what happens when that fire burns itself out. One or both might end up going to Jackson to mess around or wreck their health or acting like a scalded hound if it doesn't work out, you know. Seriously, I had difficulty believing sensible, practical Dani would throw all caution to the wind and marry "Dutch" within two days. Alas, it is titled The Tender Stranger after all.

 

Of course, he doesn't tell her he's a mercenary with a death wish, and when she finds out, "Dutch" really begins to see the woman he's married. Dani's honesty and her self awareness won't allow her to just roll over for this handsome, sexy man. She knows his dangerous lifestyle is one she won't be able to live with. I love that she stood by her guns and refuses to be seduced away from what she recognizes will be debilitating and destructive for herself.

 

I'm really glad I reread The Tender Stranger. It has all the elements I love in a Diana Palmer book without the crazy train elements I've encountered in her books lately. Dutch is definitely a hero in pursuit, drawn to Dani despite all the defenses he throws up to keep her at arm's length, a hero challenged by her to knock out the walls he's surrounded himself with, to embrace life. Dani was the one looking for adventure and challenge in the beginning, but I loved how it flipped so that Dutch was the one who was challenged by her strength and bravery, who had to learn from Dani how to step out of the past, to acknowledge his past mistakes, and more importantly to forgive himself for them and to accept contentment and happiness and love for the gifts they are.

SPOILER ALERT!

"How far off is a dream?"

The New Zealander - Joyce Dingwell

Based on my track record, I probably shouldn't have liked The New Zealander as much as I did. I mean, you have to buy into the fantasy, believe in the fairy tale, sometimes suspend pretty much all belief that the world is round, that gravity always wins, and that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. But I did. I really, really, really liked it. In fact, I can't remember when I laughed so much or so hard. For the chuckles alone, I should give it five stars. But wait, there's more.

 

Summarizing the plot in The New Zealander is going to sound like I've been smoking wacky weed or coming off a week-long intravenous feed of nothing but Ghirardelli's dark chocolate and sea salt caramel. It's crazy and frenetic and at times as incomprehensible as the morning after a weird dream where the bits and pieces recalled feel like a jigsaw puzzle with the pieces just slightly off and not quite fitting. But I liked it. I really, really, really liked it.

 

Deep breath. Here goes. Abigail Ash is a 23-year old young woman who lives with her Uncle Tod and younger (by six years) sister, Nancy, on Spice Street in the sleepy little suburb of Rushfield on the outskirts of Sydney Australia. Rushfield boasts a race course, a small shopping center, and a few paved streets, but the race course is the most exciting thing in town. Abigail works at Stanways (not really sure what they do) Monday through Friday, rides the bus to and from with Daryl Webley, who also works at Stanways, a young man she's had an "understanding" with for five and half years, does her chores on weekends, goes to church every Sunday. On Saturday night, she and Daryl go to the "pictures" (cheap seats only) and share a "plate of toast afterwards for supper and divide it in two." (Daryl is really enthusiastic about saving money.) Every second Sunday, Abigail visits Daryl at his mother's home for tea (he lives on Cinnamon Street) while Mrs. Webley makes sure Daryl is kept exactly where he belongs - right under her thumb. No vamping in her parlor every second Sunday. That's about the sum of Abigail's life. Oh, except she took a ton of cooking classes at the Tech, from "Elementary to Advanced including Jams and Pickles." She is also quite proud of the fact that she can cook "invalid", too.

 

Everything probably would have continued this way until Abigail was old, dried up and shriveled. Except for two things. First, she overhears a shocking conversation between Nancy and Uncle Tod one Saturday morning. Abigail with her hair tied back with a shoelace and in her bedroom slippers in "Saturday morning fashion" needs mint for the potatoes so out to the vegetable garden hidden behind the trellis of pink geraniums. Nancy and Uncle Tod were on the veranda (only used for "family conferences" because the veranda was too hot in summer and too cold in winter), but the mention of her name made her lean toward the trellis. Nancy is in love with her high school beau, David, and they want to marry. Like right now. They've even found a cute little bungalow they could move into, but they'd have to reserve it. All plans are on hold because Nancy needs Uncle Tod's permission to marry since she's underage, and Uncle Tod refuses because he has this old-fashioned idea that Abigail, the eldest, should marry first. Nancy wails that it's not fair, that Abigail "settled" for Daryl and will be waiting for him forever, and Uncle Tod placates and scolds her, even saying Abigail is "still rather immature for her years", but he refuses to budge despite pleas, threats, jeers, and tears from Nancy. Abigail is stunned out of her stupor by the thought that she has been complacent and begins to think it's time to pin Daryl down to something more definite than the vague "in the future", "in time to come", and "eventually" he usually uses to put her off.

 

But first, there's Daryl. Daryl is tall, wears rimless spectacles, not a fan of PDAs (poor taste, don't you know), nor is he a fan of "bare words" (see "eventually", etc.). He is a fan, however, of disapproving looks for Abigail especially when she does "embarrassing" things like talking to herself or kicking pebbles (it's "childish and wears out the toes of her shoes"). I think everything embarrasses Daryl, probably when she breathes a little too deeply or just exists. Like Abigail, he works at Stanways (Monday through Friday on the bus there and back), home at night with mother, Saturday chores - manicuring the lawn, upkeep of Mum's house, whitening the stepping stones, and scraping the moss from the stone frogs in the yard. You've heard that a rolling stone gathers no moss, right? Well, neither do scraped stone frogs, and those stone frogs surely can gather A LOT of moss. Hmm, I think I know why Mum doesn't want to lose her boy. Very handy is Daryl. Saturday nights is economy dating with Abigail - the cheap seats "picture" night and one plate of toast divided in two after - church on Sunday, and every second Sunday tea with Mum and Abigail. I'm just surprised Abigail hasn't died of inertia after five and half years of this routine.

 

Abigail heads off to Cinnamon Street in her Saturday fashion of slippers and shoelace tie back instead of the "secure roll Daryl approved." She's pretty sure Mrs. Webley will not be happy to see her. After all, it's the wrong day of the week and the wrong week. Routine is everything with the Webleys. Abigail's also thinking about a rather odd ad she answered even as she frets about braving the dragon, er, I mean Mrs. Webley and actually confronting Daryl about setting a date. You know, when the door knocker is a gargoyle, it's probably a sign to run away. Far, far away. But Abigail loves her sister, is determined to make Nancy's dream come true, and she is determined to do something. Besides, she's invested five and half years so no gargoyle on the door or one answering the door is going to turn her away. Even if in her haste she accidentally leaves her dirty foot mark on the freshly whitened stepping stones and a corresponding white foot mark on the perfectly manicured lawn after stepping off the blindingly white stepping stone. Oops.

 

The conversation doesn't go well. First, she practically has to lasso Daryl to talk with him "privately" sans Mum, and her suggestion they talk in his b-e-d-r-o-o-m (Oh my!) sends him into paroxysms of virginal horror. Just to make sure his virtue remains intact, he puts a door stop against his bedroom door to make sure it won't close. Also, Mum is waiting in the hall in case passion overcomes Abigail, and she'll rush in to stop that hussy if she tries to seduce her little boy. Daryl's Victorian sensibilities are mortally affronted, absolutely horrified when Abigail actually says the words "Are you going to marry me?" Out loud. All those naked words. So very bare. Daryl doesn't LIKE bare words; he likes to hide them in hazy, unspecified, vague dust covers and shrouds. Like he's trying to do with Abigail. The gist of his counter-attack goes like this:

 

- Abigail has been "masquerading as a nice lady-like young woman all these years when all the while she was really nothing but a hoyden."
- She's trying to "hustle" him.
- She's "conniving for an early marriage." (Well, I think that ship sailed four and a half years ago.)
- He disapproves of the slippers and a shoelace in her hair. (Of course.)
- But he magnanimously forgives her for being "froward." (Just say contrary, damn it!)

 

Abigail explodes, she's tired of "eventually, in the future, in time to come"; it's "now or never." And then going, going. . . Gone. As she leaves, she tells Mrs. Webley: "I won't be here on Sunday week, nor eventually, in the future, in time to come." She's pretty sure the Webleys are more concerned with the waste of all that money for five and years of cheap seats at the pictures, supper after, and all those Sunday teas than her feelings.

 

Not a good day. But in the back of her mind is the ad which showed up in the Rushfield Runner:

 

Wanted: Personable young woman. Able to cook. Willing to travel. Strictly respectable position. Time limited. Apply at once.

 

Her friend, Janet the "feminist", sneers at the way the ad specifies "personable" while Abigail thinks "personable" sounds like an "old hat word." As a lark, Janet writes out a reply:

 

'Dear Advertiser, I have marked myself on the enclosed group with an X.' Janet had duly marked one of the office photos. 'As you see, I am rather personable. I also cook, and I like traveling. Please let me know by return mail. Yours sincerely, (Miss) A. Ash.'

 

But one of the ladies mails the reply either by accident or as a joke, and on the morning of the eavesdropping incident at the trellis, Abigail had received a reply:

 

'Dear Miss Ash, The position is yours. If you call at the hotel above and ask for the name below, we will go into details. Assuring you of my honourable intentions. Yours truly, Titus Brown.

 

On a rather circuitous way home she crosses the "green sward" close to the horse paddocks of the race course and comes face-to-face with Mr. Titus Brown leading a chestnut filly into a paddock. He recognizes her from her picture and assumes she's come to talk about the position. What follows is a lot of almost incomprehensible conversation - mostly because of Titus whose conversation skills soar to the heights of almost lucid and dip to the depths of mostly muddled. Abigail is not impressed by Titus. He is "quite unremarkable", "quite unhandsome", and just about as average in height and build as a man can be and with a slight suggestion of a Scottish burr in his accent.

 

The only thing not average about him is his coloring. He has "vivid red hair that was grizzling at the temples, and the two colors, red and grizzle, did not blend." He's dressed rather shabbily in an old tweed jacket, baggy sweater, cord trousers, and rubber boots. Plus he tends to turn "brick red" in embarrassment clashing with his unfortunate ruddy grizzled hair. Running frustrated hands through his hair leaves red and grizzled spikes making him resemble a distressed ginger/gray hedgehog. Except not so cute. Honestly, he's kind of a mess all the time, buttons hanging by a thread, ill-fitting trousers and jackets, and all of it strictly utilitarian and practical. His eyes Abigail rather unkindly likens to a "mustard pickle" color. In fact, "pickle eyes" becomes her favorite descriptive of Titus, especially when he's done/said something that puzzles or angers her.

 

He explains the ad should have been worded "reasonable", not "personable" (not the first time the Rushfield Runner has misprinted an ad), and she explains the mess she's in with her sister, her uncle, and the newly cast-off Daryl. The air is cleared somewhat, and they make a deal: he'll pretend to be her fiancé if she'll come back to New Zealand as a cook for a mysterious venture he just received a permit to operate. Abigail explains she'll need an engagement ring in order to convince Uncle Tod the lynx which Titus just happens to have in his pocket. He must have been a Boy Scout. Or maybe he has a hidden agenda and something else is going on. Hmmm.


'My uncle is a lynx,' she warned.

 

'Short tail, high haunches, or just sharp sight?' he asked. (29)

 

Why won't he tell her what the place is? Because he wants her "first impressions" and because, even more mysteriously and vaguely, because he believes her to be "the answer" to his hope. All she knows for sure is that the place is not a sheep station, a stud, a farm, an orchard, a school, or a hospital though her expertise at "invalid" meal preparation may be useful. In good faith, he gives her references from his banker, his solicitor, his minister. She shows him her certificates for cooking.

 

They return to Spice Street where Titus transforms from barely coherent and uncertain to "bland and assured", convincing Uncle Tod so thoroughly Titus is soon fondly referred to as 'son' and Nancy is sighing in romantic raptures as Titus declares in a poetic, heartfelt manner that "once in a great while you meet someone, and there's something between you." Abigail? Well, Abigail just thinks he has an "old hat manner to match his name", that there's "nothing smart about him", and that drivel makes him sound like an author. Actually, Abigail wasn't too far off because those words are from a book. Written by Titus's handsome, younger brother, Peter. Titus placates Uncle Tod's insistence for a wedding sooner than later by telling him that the church (Titus helped build the kirk) still needs a roof. A few days later, Abigail is on her way to Fiordland, New Zealand ('the gateway to the Sounds') and Nancy's wedding is set to occur in three weeks. All's well that ends well. Right?

 

Not exactly. First, two crossings by ship prove Abigail is not meant for sea travel. Then once in Fiordland, Titus's truck breaks down in the rain, and he sends her on ahead by foot after scratching his head, poking under the hood and squinting at the dashboard. To add insult to injury Titus's mysterious business venture is a rundown inn Abigail nicknames "The Horror" but is known locally as "The Open Arms." There are comparisons I could make between Titus and "The Horror", but I won't.

 

This was the road she had wearily traversed less than an hour ago, only to arrive at a wrong place. There was something directly ahead of them, partly hidden by a thicket of trees. In the semi-dusk it loomed up like some big, brooding animal, a very distorted and clumsy animal, flat head and gargantuan paws. Good lord, it was a building! (61)

 

The "Open Arms" inn is a mess, slanting, crooked, peeling paint, no paved path. But the backdrop is a "pansy-dark mountain" that "catches the pulsing amber of late afternoon", a cascading creek that "rainbowed down a ferny glen." In front of all that beauty is "The Horror."

 

It was an architect's nightmare. It had every addition and every omission it should not have had. It was awkward, squint-eyed, ramshackle, crooked, ugly, and although she knew the magic of paint, Abby shuddered at the quantity that would be needed to cover that sulphurous-yellow, peeled here and there to the dingy color of badly washed woolens. (76)

 

Inside is no better. Cobwebs in the hall, ten very unappealing bedrooms, some with "chinks of windows", some without windows at all. Two bathrooms - both dark and ancient with dirty grey baths. In the kitchen is a "big, grumpy-looking fuel range, crooked stacks of old crockery, sullen cut-saucepans, frying pans you would need all your strength even to push over a flame" with an aged dark plastered ceiling crisscrossed with wooden rough beams and dreary paneling. Then she sees the taproom.

 

It was unspeakably dusty, everything shabby and rusty, but in some strange fashion it had a golden mellowness about it that kept her standing on the top step, standing stock still.

 

There was a dark, old bar, and among the dusty tankards there were some that looked like pewter. With a fire in the fireplace that took almost all the south wall, a wind sucking up the smoke so that the flames leapt high, the glow would imprison the pewter. Abby caught her breath almost achingly at the thought. Unconscious of moving, she went down the well-worn steps and stood among the old brews.

 

'Here's something else, girl,' called a voice from the top step, and Ab knew by the breathless note that Titus Brown had sensed and caught her mood.

 

He came down with his find. It was an ancient sign. It said: "The Open Arms." It was wooden and faded. You could just detect what it told you, just follow the outline of two extended, beckoning arms, the fingers incurling as in invitation. Like the taproom, it was dirty, shabby. As she had with the taproom Abby felt her throat tighten. (77-78)

 

I loved that part. Amidst the grime and dirt and horrifying monstrosity that is The Open Arms Inn, Abby fell a little bit in love with the old place. Falling in love with Titus Brown takes her a little bit longer. Titus improves the more you know him, the more you see him. Bramble eyes Abby likened to "pickle" take on highlights she'd overlooked, like "firelight on old pewter." Titus "with the heart of a lion but the delicacy of an elephant" unashamedly uses snippets from Peter's books to woo Abby. She's very angry when she discovers his "once in a great while" and "just the two of us pinned there in life's pattern" lines are in the dubiously titled Yesterday's Tomorrows (by Peter Brown) though Titus is just amazed she believed he came up with them in the first place.

 

"You couldn't have thought it was mine, girl. You must have heard how incoherent I was."

 

"Yes, but I thought. . . that is. . ."

 

"What did you think, Abigail?" His eyes were now leveled on hers.

 

"Oh what does it matter?" Abby snapped. "It's all too silly." She added hatingly, "And Nancy thought it was you, too."

 

"Abby I'm sorry if I've disappointed you."

 

"Disappointed me? As though you could!"

 

"Titus," Ab exploded, pushing it under his nose, "haven't you any words of your own?"

 

He looked at her almost secretly. "I have some words. Have you the heart and mind to listen, Abigail Ash?" (105-106)

 

No she's not ready. Not yet. First there's the taciturn disapproving Mrs. Macbeth (the housekeeper) to win over, the handsome innkeeper of The Traveller's Rest right next door who turns her head for a time, lots of letters from Spice Street inquiring about a wedding date, several delays in Nancy and David's wedding, stitching up Brown the dog after going 13 rounds with a wild pig, a pardoned wapiti, the adoption of Fawn the fawn, refurbishing The Open Arms, pompolomas for sixteen hungry tired Americans, one guest stuck in a bathtub, a frog crisis, meeting Titus's younger handsome brother, Peter, who turns her head the other way, and a partridge in a pear tree. Just kidding about the last one. I wondered when, or if, poor Titus would ever get the girl.

 

I love Titus. I love his awkwardness, his determined cheerfulness in the face of disaster after disaster, his unbridled optimism, his stubborn refusal to quit at the first obstacle, but especially his "pickle eyes." Though Abigail sees him as average and unprepossessing, Titus is not your average Harlequin hero. He's not wealthy or suave or debonair or self-assured, nor is he arrogant or mean-spirited. At times he's clumsy, a bit shy and stumbling in his pursuit of Abigail, and he has an unfortunate affinity for falling into streams, creeks, and frozen ponds. When Titus isn't bumbling around with his courtship of Abby or trying to restore The Open Arms, he's recuperating from sniffles and sneezes caused by plunging into the nearest body of water.

 

He trips on a bottle Abby used to feed an orphaned fawn and rolls and tumbles into the stream again which sent him to bed with sniffles and sneezes. And then there was the eel incident. I know eels aren't snakes, they're fish. But they look like snakes to me. Abby sees eels in the shallow creek close to the inn, thinks they're cute and begins feeding them. Why? Just why? As interesting as it was to learn that the river in Abby's old hometown had an aboriginal name meaning "Place where eels sit down", I'm not particularly keen on anything that resembles a snake. Nor will I ever be caught feeding them. FYI, they like meat, not blancmange. As she's feeding them one day, one bites her fingertip, (See! I told you so!) and she screams, Titus comes running to rescue her from drowning in the shallow creek and lands in it himself. As Mrs. MacBeth the housekeeper keeps saying: Wet again,Titus? And it's not the last time.

 

Titus's heart is in a good place though he's not the sharpest knife in the drawer about some things. He genuinely loves his brother and since he's a fixer upper, he tries to fix his brother's love life. He's a dreamer. He has this cockeyed dream to make the Open Arms prosper, to have Abby see and share his dream.

 

Ab, mopping up Fawn now, looked across the silken ears to see Titus looking intently at her. "What are you gazing at?" she demanded, abashed.

 

"You - old and grey, tottering round the inn."

 

"You have a vivid imagination, Mr. Brown."

 

"Grey is not a vivid colour, but it looks well with the lavender dress you're wearing," he went on.

 

"I'm wearing pink."

 

"Now you are, but you're wearing lavender as you lean on my old arm and totter round the inn." (156)

 

He had a grand plan when he hired Abby as a cook, but the plan backfires on him when he falls in love with Abigail Himself but has to take a back seat to the innkeeper next door and his brother, Peter. As clumsy and awkward and unpolished as he is, he's also tender hearted and kind and generous. Titus isn't the kind of man who beats on his chest in a display of alphatude. He talks big manly man talk about shooting a wapiti to replace the dusty, moth eaten old "Tom" of the battered antlers over the fireplace, but, when push came to shove, Titus couldn't do it. I adored the final confrontation between Daryl Webley, Titus, and Abby. Totals are tallied, two engagement rings are produced, insults are hurled, punches thrown, and Titus grabs hold of Daryl by the scruff of the neck and the seat of his pants and tosses him out of a hotel. Maybe Daryl can scrape Mr. Burns' mossy statue in the Octagon at Dunedin instead of the stone frogs. Or not. Abby begins to notice "the bramble eyes she chose to call pickle" "suddenly the had firelight them. Firelight on old pewter."

 

Abby took a long time to get there, but once there, she wasted no time. She met with the minister and arranged for a wedding the next day, invited Peter, and enlisted the help from Donald MacBeth who handles all of Her Majesty's Mail in Fiordland via a cable to Spice Street, Australia: MARRYING THE NEW ZEALANDER TOMORROW. Letting Donald in on her plans is the equivalent of renting a billboard. Within minutes everyone around the community would know. Plain-spoken Donald wants to know which New Zealander, and her reply is just about perfect.

 

She thought of the taproom that was not going to be missed. The firelight on pewter. Wind sucking up smoke.

 

"It means one, Donald," she informed firmly. "There's only ever been one. I'm going to tell him now." (191)

 

I loved it and this book. My only disappointment is the very rushed ending. I really, really wanted to see Titus's face when Abby finds him at the Traveller's Rest learning how to hang a deer over the mantel without it appearing to lean and leer.

 

Carla Kelly's The Spanish Brand series

The Double Cross - Carla Kelly Marco and the Devil's Bargain (The Spanish Brand Series) - Carla Kelly Paloma and the Horse Traders (The Spanish Brand Series Book 3) - Carla Kelly

My reading love affair with Carla Kelly's books began with Beau Crusoe, and I've never looked back. Many of her books have resonated with me from the very first paragraph like Reforming Lord Ragsdale, Libby's London Merchant, The Wedding Journey, and With This Ring to name a few and I've read and reread them many times. But The Spanish Brand series just seemed to languish on the bookshelves. I'm still not sure why I kept shuffling this series further and further down the Mt. TBR mountain, but I came across them again in yet another effort to reorganize the TBR shelves (a futile exercise to make Mt. TBR appear smaller) and decided now was the time.

 

The Spanish Brand is, for now, three books (though I've read somewhere there may be more in the future) - The Double Cross, Marco and the Devil's Bargain, and Paloma and the Horse Traders. Though each book can easily be read as a stand alone, I found reading all three gave me a better appreciation for the ongoing relationship between Marco and Paloma Mondragon. The beauty, if you will, that could be seen of not just this couple falling in love but in witness to how loving someone every day challenges and stretches each person in the relationship, how the relationship is constantly evolving and becoming more. Marco

 

Mondragon and his wife, Paloma, were vividly drawn and very sympathetic, and the strong bond between them by the end of the third book was more credible for the flaws each bring to the marriage as it was the celebration of their strengths. Little things like Marco's dogged determination to feed Paloma enough "eggs, chorizo, hominy, pork, turkey, venison, beef, mutton, tortillas, and flan on Sunday's" until he couldn't feel her ribs and Paloma's "look" she levels at Marco when he's a dunderhead offered comedic relief at times but also served to bring their characters together into sharper focus. The three books in toto make a splendid story, at the very least, about making marriage work every day, going far beyond the usual 'happy ever after' that usually ends a romance.

 

The setting, the Valle del Sol in 1780, in the Spanish colony of New Mexico on the edge of Comacheria territory to the east and Apache territory to the south, is such an unusual one for historical romance. I loved the rich details, even, at times, its gritty realism. I was a little unprepared at times for the sheer brutality human beings can inflict on other human beings, but the violence was never gratuitous. External threats to survival like Native American uprisings to disease - like cholera which took Marco's first wife and twin sons and la viruela, smallpox, in Marco and The Devil's Bargain - or the equally deadly but internally-driven menace of closed-minded intolerance and unreasoning hatred underscore how precious life really is. All three books are a wonderful amalgam of history and romance, with the the latter entwined seamlessly into Marco and Paloma's ongoing adventures and challenges. The history of the Spanish in New Mexico, Marco's particularly unique office and duties of "juez de campo" on the edge of Comacheria, outriders armed with bow and arrow instead of guns, the various tribes of Native Americans (Utes, Apaches, and Comanche), life on the "llano estacado" for the Kwahadi as well as surviving and thriving on a hacienda in the late 18th century really came to life for me here between these pages.

 

All three books had sections I found unforgettable - moments of tenderness, riveting drama, or simply a little bit of dark humor (like Toshua's calm assertions that any bodily threat to Paloma or Marco could be eliminated effectively, quietly, and quite permanently). Like the reason Marco nails Paloma's bloody sandals, her dowry to their marriage, over the mantel, just slightly below the crucifix, to show that he honors her and her courage.

 

He knocked on the door of the kitchen. He thought he heard a mumbled "Enter", but he was coming in anyway. Best to be formal now, because he knew what he wanted.

 

"Señorita Vega, since there is no papa and no go-between, you will have to hear this from me. Kindly give me all your attention."

 

She looked at him, startled, her eyes wary now, but not so hopeless. She nodded.

 

He held out her sandals. "I am claiming your sandals as your dowry."

 

He was an experienced husband. Her comment was most unloverlike, to be sure, but it was already wifely.

 

"Not one moth, Paloma, my heart." He glanced at her, gleeful to see the tears start in her eyes at his endearment. Oh, he could do this. "Your sandals. I intend to hang them in my - our - sala in Valle del Sol, certainly a little lower than the crucifix, but not much lower, because they mean almost as much to me."

 

"Explain yourself, Señor," she said, giving him permission to continue.

 

"You were willing to walk and walk on bloody feet to return a foolish dog to me to keep my feet warm. You had no idea where del Sol was when you started out, except that it was near Comacheria, a place that terrifies you."

 

She nodded, her eyes ever so serious.

 

"You can see the snow coming lower and lower down the mountains, same as me. You had a few coins in your apron and you were going to walk until you dropped, to the most dangerous place in the colony, if you had to, to return a runt."

 

He sank to his knees then, not because it seemed like a good idea when wooing a stubborn woman, but because his legs would not hold him. "I'm going to look at these sandals every day if I have to, and do my best to be the husband, father, rancher, and juez that someone as wonderful, brave, and stubborn as you are deserves. Your sandals, Paloma. Give them to me. I never met such a brave woman as you." (73, The Double Cross)

 

If I had to choose a favorite of the three, I think it would have to be Marco and the Devil's Bargain. La viruela, small pox, is almost another character in the book and protecting Paloma from small pox leads Marco to make a deal with a shifty physician who promises to inoculate her and everyone at Valle del Sol if Marco will lead him to the llano estacado, "the staked plains", to help him find his daughter, taken by the Penateka Comanches. The journey is dangerous not just for the terrain to be traveled and the time of year, but also because it is a forbidden place for anyone other than Kwahadi.

 

Spanish conquistador Francisco Coronado, was the first European to traverse the llano estacado, "the sea of grass", "the staked plain", in 1541:

 

I reached some plains so vast, that I did not find their limit anywhere I went, although I traveled over them for more than 300 leagues ... with no more land marks than if we had been swallowed up by the sea ... there was not a stone, nor bit of rising ground, nor a tree, nor a shrub, nor anything to go by. (Wikipedia)

 

According to legend, Coronado and his men had to mark their trails with stakes, like Hansel and Gretel with bread crumbs, in order to find their way back. Another legend says the stakes were placed in order to have something to tie their horses to at night.

 

Marco is between Scylla and Charybdis: he can take the chance that Paloma will not contract small pox and refuse Gil's bargain or he can allow Dr. Gil to inoculate her (which may kill her anyway) and have to face a journey from which he may not return. These several chapters including the journey into the llano estacado, to the winter camp of the Comanche, were fraught with tension and turmoil. The group is beset by a wandering band of Comanche dying from small pox, attacked by Apaches, and forced to live for months in the staked plains with the Kwahadi people till the weather clears enough for travel. The months spent in the winter village of the Kwahadi is written beautifully, with some of the tightest writing - evocative, emotion-filled, enlightening - of the three books. When Marco decides it's time to return to Valle del Sol, I admit I was a little sad to say goodbye to Eckapeta, Ayasha, Buffalo Rut, Kahúu, and the babies.

 

There was one scene where the group finds a Comanche, dying of the Dark Wind, a man unable to sing his death song so Toshua begins to sing his death song for him. Paloma stops him when she hears the "high and unearthly" song, coming straight from his heart:

 

"Please stop," Paloma said, her voice soft, but cutting through the song. Toshua did as she asked.

 

"I think it is not good for you to sing your own death song, pabi," she said, and began to sing a different song, one so familiar to Marco. She graciously took the burden from her adopted brother with a hymn of her faith. O God we praise thee; we acknowledge thee to be the Lord.

 

He already knew how sweet and pure her voice was. She had sung to him a time or two, late at night when no one was listening. "Te deum laudamus", she sang "te dominum confitemur."

 

In the cold and snow of a feeble fire that gave off little light and no warmth, his wife sang praise to God with a dying Comanche in her lap. Marco joined her on the "Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus," and then hummed with her when she was too teary-eyed to sing anymore. (125, Marco and the Devil's Bargain)

 

The Te Deum is a beautiful hymn, a beautiful prayer, one of thanksgiving and adoration as well as a humble plea for help. In it also is a reference to St. Paul's words - "death, where is thy sting?" The death song is a song celebrating life, an acknowledgement of having left nothing undone and nothing unsaid, a rejoicing at entering the next plane, leaving this world with grace. For Toshua to offer his song to a man who had turned him out of his village and for Paloma to sing the Te Deum, I think, in place of the dying Comanche's death song shows a generosity of spirit, an offer of compassion, comfort and solace from one human being to another, without regard to race or religion.

 

I enjoyed these books so much and found them to be a richly rewarding reading experience. Themes of love lost and regained, of integrity and courage, finding contentment after adversity, strength in the face of loss, kindness, compassion, and celebrating our humanity are threads woven throughout all three books. Yes, there are parts that are difficult to read, but there's also humor, characters I liked, and plenty of adventures of ordinary people doing the occasional extraordinary thing.

 

 

 

 

Show me the glint of light on broken glass. . .

My Lady Notorious (Mallorens & Friends series Book 1) - Jo Beverley Tempting Fortune - Jo Beverley Something Wicked by Jo Beverley (2005-01-04) - Jo Beverley Secrets Of The Night - Jo Beverley Devilish - Jo Beverley

 

Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
― Anton Chekhov

 

 

 

My heart is sad. I read last night that Jo Beverley has passed away. She was one of the first historical romance writers I read after I 'rediscovered' histroms. My introduction to Ms. Beverley was Devilish, and though my copy was a battered and bent, a less than pristine copy bought for pennies at a used book store, I knew I was holding gold in my hands. I finished it in one sitting. That was the beginning of my reading love affair with her Malloren world. Since then I have re-read those original five books many times, and, yes, I replaced my tattered original copy of Devilish with a brand new crisp clean copy. But I've kept the old one, and it will always have a place of honor on my keeper shelf. 

 

She will be missed greatly. My thoughts and prayers are with her family, friends, and colleagues, and I hope she knew what a treasure she was to a reader like me, one who had never met her, but felt as if I knew her, just a little, from the stories she spun so eloquently, from the characters who peopled her books, and from the hours of reading joy she gave me over the years. Safe journey, Ms. Beverley. 

 

http://wordwenches.typepad.com/word_wenches/2016/05/in-memoriam-jo-beverley.html

SPOILER ALERT!

Christmas Ever After

Christmas Ever After - Sarah Morgan

(The Cotswold cottage in The Holiday)

 

I read a post on Mary Balogh's website about Christmas stories and romance (http://www.marybalogh.com/the-magic-of-christmas-stories/) not long ago in which she states: "Christmas is a character in my stories - a central benevolent force for love and joy" and what better time to "hear what at its heart it is saying about the meaning of it all - that love is always there and love is all that matters." That's exactly how the Christmas setting works in Sarah Morgan's One Enchanted Moment (Christmas Ever After). It's as much an integral part of this romance as Alec "Shipwreck" Hunter, Skylar Tempest, Alec's loving, funny, and warm family in Honeysuckle Cottage in the Cotswolds, Skylar's driven and emotionless family back in New York, and the community of friends gathered on Puffin Island, Maine, to celebrate the Christmas season.

 

Skylar is en route to an exhibition of her artwork in a pricey Knightsbridge art gallery, signs of the holiday season all around her, and the opening scene as she walks out of the hotel with the snow falling around her, the 'midnight blue sky', 'frosted white streets', 'elaborately decorated windows' shining with 'fairy lights', shoppers to-ing and fro-ing hurriedly, bundled up in wool against the cold, her glittery silver dress and white coat really was reminiscent of a miniature Christmas scene in a snow globe, a bit whimsical, a bit fantastical, a frozen snapshot of life just before it all changes. And just like a charming little snow globe, Skylar's world is about to be shaken up too.

 

It begins with a rather terse, cold phone call from her mother (who eschews coming to Skylar's exhibition in favor of planning the final details of yet another 'intimate' Tempest family Christmas event - only forty for Christmas lunch, more formal eighty of the world's movers and shakers for Christmas dinner), yet another reproach for wasting her life on a her little 'hobby' (Skylar's passion to create art that comes to life as jewelry, ceramics, paintings), a very public flamboyant proposal of marriage by Skylar's 'rat boyfriend', newly elected Senator Richard Everson, and her subsequent refusal of his proposal.

Skylar has two goals in life: to pursue her art and to find love, not particularly marriage but love, a love entirely opposite of her parents' sterile corporate merger marriage:


Your parents have been married thirty-five years and never share a cross word.”

 

And never a loving one, either. Never, not once, had she seen her parents show affection.

 

They didn’t hold hands.

 

They didn’t kiss.

 

There were no lingering glances, no suggestion of a bond of togetherness.

 

She wanted so much more. (3037)


She had hoped maybe, just maybe, to have found that with Richard, only to discover that their affinity, the shared hopes and dreams were a figment of her imagination, insubstantial wisps of a dream, learning he'd been scripted and coached by her parents to fit her ideal man. Since she had failed miserably to meet their lofty career ambitions in a family of lawyers, then she could at least meet their 'relationship ambitions' by marrying someone exactly like them. Richard's attempts to diminish and dismiss Sky leaves her feeling betrayed, very hurt, and very foolish:


"This hobby of yours is fine, but you are wasting your life. You paint pictures and make jewelry and that wouldn’t matter except that you’re smart and there are so many other more useful things you could be doing. Things that would make me proud.”

 

She felt dizzy. “You’re not proud of me?”

 

“You’re not exactly saving the planet, Sky. Even you can’t pretend that what you do is important.” (3051)


It's an epiphany for her, the scales falling from her eyes. She sees Richard the rat's true colors.


She felt as if she had emerged from a deep sleep.

 

“The last necklace I made was taken from a broach left to a client by her grandmother. It had been sitting in a drawer for a decade and she wanted it made into something contemporary that she could wear. Something relevant to her life that would remind her of someone she’d loved very much. It was important to her. Emotions are important.” But she knew he wouldn’t understand that.

 

To him, money, power and influence were the important things. He was like her parents. (3063)


Worse, her refusal of his proposal brings out a dangerous volatility in Richard she'd recognized in the past year but had managed to defuse. Not this time.

 

Richard, you need to get control of yourself.” Her voice was sharp. “Take some breaths.”

 

“You are a spoiled bitch.”

 

She flinched as if he’d hit her and then realized in a moment of suspended disbelief that he actually was going to hit her.

 

His hand came up and instinctively she sidestepped to evade the blow. Her heel caught on the edge of a box and she fell heavily, smacking her head on the corner of the table.

 

Pain exploded in her skull. Her vision went dark and there was a distant humming in her head.

 

Something warm and wet trickled down her face and she opened her eyes dizzily, trying to see through the pain.

 

He stood over her, hands raised to ward off the accusation he was clearly afraid she might make. “I didn’t touch you.” There was a hint of panic in his voice. “I didn’t touch you.”

 

He made no move to help her.

 

Showed no concern for her well-being, only his own.

 

“You wanted two words? I’ve got two perfect words for you. Fuck off.” She lifted her fingers to her head and they came away sticky. “Go. Now.” (3135-3148)


Unbelievably, he tells her maybe the blow to her head will help her come to her senses and leaves her bleeding and lying on the floor, without knowing or caring whether she'll be all right, worried only about any bad publicity or embarrassing scenes she might make.

 

The last person in the world Sky expects come to her rescue is grumpy, moody, aloof, cynical Alec "Shipwreck" Hunter, a friend and colleague of Brittany Flynn (Some Kind Of Wonderful), maritime historian, author, star of TV documentaries, part-time resident of Puffin Island, Maine, and co-chair of their mutual antipathy club. Alec reminded me of Josh Bernstein from The History Channel's Digging For The Truth. 


Of all the people who disapproved of her, her parents and Richard included, Alec Hunter led them all. He made no secret of the fact he thought she was shallow and frivolous.

 

Princess.

 

It was the cruelest irony that he’d been the one to be by her side at her lowest moment. (3301)


Alec, drafted by Brittany and Emily (First Time In Forever), to drop by Sky's exhibition because they couldn't be there, has two simple goals after the failure of his first marriage: never to hurt anyone ever again and to keep all his relationships superficial. High maintenance women like his ex-wife are to be avoided at all costs.


Another legacy of his marriage was his aversion to overpolished, high-maintenance women. His relationship with Selina had been six months of sex, followed by an elaborate wedding and two years of bitter arguments that had culminated in an acrimonious divorce.

 

At her insistence he’d attended two sessions of marriage guidance counseling, ostensibly to “learn about himself.” What he’d learned was that he didn’t like his wife any more than she liked him.

 

He’d also learned that he was better off alone.

 

He was too selfish to make a commitment to a woman.

 

He liked his life too much to sacrifice it for a relationship. (3173)

 

As for Skye, well. Alec has lumped her in the same category as his ex-wife. They tolerate each other for the sake of group friendship with Brittany, Zach, Emily, and Ryan, but in word and deed, he considers her a brainless, vain "waste of space", a spoiled and privileged '"princess."

 

The opening salvo between Alec and Sky, when he discovers her alone, nearly unconscious and bleeding in the little storeroom she and Richard had retreated to after his proposal, perfectly demonstrates their mutual enmity and dislike.


Sky? Open your eyes.” He tried to scoop her up and then dodged as she swung her fist toward his face.

 

“Touch me and I swear the next thing you feel will be my stiletto in your balls.”

 

“You might want to work on that pickup line, princess.” (3210)


I admit it. I laughed out loud at this exchange, and I loved Sky's sharp wit in the face of adversity and her refusal to be cowed, even at her lowest point. Their verbal jousting was some of the best banter I've read in a while.


"Why are you helping me? You hate me. Hence the reason you call me princess.”

 

“I seem to remember that last time we met you called me an asshole, so you’re not exactly complimentary.”

 

“Asshat, not asshole.”

 

“I think the exact phrase you used was ‘Professor Asshat.’” He rose to his feet. “Don’t move. I’m going to get a taxi by the back entrance. I’ll make sure no one sees you. (3251)


But, it's also the beginning of a lowering of guards and barriers between these two, a chance to see each other clearly without preconceptions and prejudice. Actions speak louder than words, and Alec's tenderness, genuine caring, and worry for Sky's well-being as well as her eventual acceptance after her initial surprise and shock of being offered succor at the hand of her enemy say more about their character than any verbal swords they cross. That snow globe? Yeah. Consider it shaken and stirred.

From a festive London snow globe city scene to the next setting of Christmas card perfection in Alec's family home, a charming Cotswolds cottage known as Honeysuckle Cottage in Brockburn-on-the-Water, Alec and Sky surprise each other even more.


She stirred and turned her head, absorbing her surroundings.

 

Tiny lights glowed in shop windows, illuminating honey-colored stone. Glossy green wreaths studded with plump red berries decorated the doors and a large Christmas tree dominated the village square. (3739)


Honeysuckle Cottage stood as it had for several centuries, its stone walls glowing a soft gold in the sunshine. A large evergreen wreath studded with berries hung in the center of the door and two large bay trees placed on either side of the stone steps sparkled with tiny lights.

 

“This is your home?” Sky stared at the house. “It’s the most idyllic cottage I’ve ever seen, apart from Brittany’s. It reminds me of the house in that movie The Holiday.” (3764)


Christmas with the Hunters at Honeysuckle Cottage is nothing like any Christmas Skylar has experienced - warm, cozy, untidy, loud, funny, impromptu, surrounded by family, not catered, no seating arrangements, thank you very much. A feast is prepared and shared, family stories are bandied around the table, relatives hug and kiss and slap on the back, past Christmases are remembered. Gifts are thoughtful and meaningful or outrageously funny, and ugly Christmas sweaters are worn even if it's wrong-side-out.

 

Sky's family Christmases are events, lunch and dinner with 120 people you don't know or care about, perfectly wrapped boxes without gifts inside, displayed only for effect. There are seating charts, files of information to be memorized on each guest - guest list A (movers and shakers) and guest list B (those deemed not as useful/important) - no family photographs, no snowball fights, all very formal, "scripted and planned."


Family Christmas” sounded cozy and warm, like something from a fairy tale. It conjured up images of prettily wrapped gifts stacked beneath a tall tree festooned with twinkling lights and homemade decorations, while excited children fizzed with anticipation.

 

Christmas at her parents’ house felt more like an endurance test than a fairy tale, more corporate than cozy. The “tree” would be an artistic display of bare twigs sprayed silver and studded with tiny lights, part of a larger display planned and executed every year by her mother’s interior decorator. Stark, remote and not to be touched at any cost. The “gifts,” artfully stacked on various surfaces for effect, would be empty boxes.

 

Any child hoping to find something magical under her family tree would be disappointed.

 

Those gifts summed up her family, she thought. Everything had to be shiny and perfectly wrapped.

 

Appearances mattered. (2783)


At Honeysuckle Cottage, Alec is constantly surprised and off balance by this Skylar Tempest, a woman he had no idea existed. Far from the glitzy, 'fairy princess' Skylar, she is warm and friendly with his parents, patient with his effervescent sixteen-year old sister, revels with the dogs, ignores the fur and wet snow Churchill and Nelson smear all over her white coat, and jokes with Uncle Harry who wears 'flashing reindeer antlers' on his head. She doesn't complain that the food is full of carbohydrates, or of being too cold or being bored by 'the rustic country life.' In fact, she romps with the dogs, is a fearsome snowball fighter, and lets Nelson sleep on the bed with her. One by one, his misconceptions about Skylar are knocked down. In a cottage of the Cotswolds, Alec and Sky becomes friends first and lovers afterward.

 

It's at Puffin Island, at Alec's private retreat and among friends - Brittany, Emily, Zach, and Ryan - that their relationship continues to evolve and change. For someone like Sky who has become used to apologizing for not fitting in with her family, for being dreamy, for being artistic instead of practical and driven, for forgetting to turn her phone on because she's caught in a creative frenzy, for the million and one ways she is Skylar Tempest, being with Alec who is patient, kind, and accepting of who she is is a revelatory experience. After a particularly nasty phone call from her father, "The Judge", (because she always feels as if she's on trial, and he never rules in her favor), Alec tells her to just ignore her phone, but she can't.


But that puts him in control.”

 

“He is in control.”

 

“Of your life?” He walked back toward her and she shook her head.

 

“Not the decisions I make, but he controls the approval ratings and the mood of the household. I’ll be blamed if we have an ice storm at Christmas.”

 

“I assume you’re not talking about the weather.”

 

She gave a humorless laugh. “When we were young, my brothers and I used to issue weather warnings to each other as shorthand for his mood. ‘Stormy today’ or ‘cloudy with a chance of sunshine.’ Although there wasn’t much sunshine. My father is a very serious man. (4629)

 

With Alec, Sky finally finds someone who likes her the way she is.


She never had to apologize with Alec.

 

She’d stopped asking him if her hair drove him crazy.

 

She’d stopped excusing herself for the fact her work was spread all over his garden room.

 

She never paused before pulling her camera out of her pocket. (7026)


One night of 'silent sex' in a Cotswold cottage extends into a few weeks of no strings sex on Puffin Island, entirely "physically based. Fun. No emotional ties. Angst-free", "the diet version of a relationship. Relationship-lite. Nonfat." Alec's first marriage left him with scars of inadequacy, a conviction that he was selfish and unable to make anyone happy in a committed relationship. Until Skylar came along and made him feel "as essential as sunshine" and then no strings progressed to "fun and sex and friendship."


And over that time he’d learned a great deal about her. He’d learned that although she was beautiful, she wasn’t at all focused on her appearance. That she was equally happy in an oversize down jacket as she’d been in that incredible silver dress the night of her exhibition. That she was exceptionally creative, but lacked the basic insecurity that plagued so many creative types.

 

He knew she was happy in a crowd, but equally happy on her own and, like him, she could easily lose track of time when she was working on a project. Usually when he was with someone, he needed his own space, but with Sky he’d never once felt trapped.

 

She talked, sometimes with no filter, but she was also a good listener.

 

He’d shared with her, he realized, more than he’d ever shared with a woman.

 

He knew she was happy in a crowd, but equally happy on her own and, like him, she could easily lose track of time when she was working on a project. Usually when he was with someone, he needed his own space, but with Sky he’d never once felt trapped. (6763)


If London is the Christmas snow globe and Honeysuckle Cottage is the holiday card, then Christmas on Puffin Island is Christmas morning - all the warmth, the love, the support, the friendship, the wonder, the magic, the hope, the peace, the renewal, the promise.


I used to think that being in a committed relationship meant sacrifice. That it forced you to make difficult choices. Then I spent time with you and realized that it’s not about choosing one life over another. It’s about sharing that life with someone you love. You were the one who showed me that was possible. I want that someone to be you.” (7543)


“When I was with you, I was me. Because I wasn’t trying to impress you, I didn’t feel the need to be anyone other than who I am. I didn’t care if you judged me, and it turned out that you didn’t. You taught me to accept who I am. You taught me that having a passion and wanting to pursue it is valid. You were never impatient about what I did. You made me so happy.” (7543
)


I loved One Enchanted Moment. I loved the way Sarah Morgan pokes at fairy tale and fantasy in Alec's misconceptions about Sky. I loved the themes of enduring friendship, of love as a liberating force in all its incarnations - between friends, partners, parents and children - of the importance of acceptance of ourselves. I especially loved the symbolism of the unbroken circle Brittany alludes to: constant, infinite, eternal, and expanding to include more than the original three.

 

4.5 stars

 

Read this, read this now

Claiming Her - Kris Kennedy

I waited years for this book and so I wanted to stretch it out and savor it, I'm happy to report it was very much worth the wait.

Katarina's parents were killed because of treasonous acts against the crown. Queen Elizabeth grew fond of her however, and seeing a little bit of herself in Katarina sent her to be chatelaine of Rardove, a castle in the wilds of Ireland. Aodh is originally a son of Ireland but after his father was killed in an uprising, he presented himself to the Queen and has traveled the world in her service. When Katarina's father's legacy brings about treason rumors against her, the Queen decides to gift the castle and Katarina to one of her supporters. Being passed over for what Aodh thought was promised him and what he considers his birthright, he decides to take what was denied him. Ireland is not for the weak and when Katarina and Aodh meet, the spark and burn will be hot enough to be felt by a monarch.

Then, soft and menacing, he whispered by her ear, "You want to fight, Katarina?"

I don't know Kris Kennedy and she doesn't know me but her stories always make me feel like she writes them exclusively for me. They are typically centered on Ireland or its people, set in the middle ages, and rich with history. I found this one to be slightly different from her others in that it focused more on the emotional aspects between our leads rather than the heavily intricate story plot and threads that make up the others. This book is set a couple generations after her others, specifically The Irish Warrior, but still ties into their story. It can definitely be read as a standalone but I loved how The Irish Warrior was almost a set-up with its complex building of plot and relationships that created a storyline and characters interwoven in a way that was all leading up to this moment.

"You said you were mine, Katy. When I was in you, as deep as a man can be, you looked in my eyes and said you were mine."
She peered at him. "You are not the sole possessor of me, Aodh."
He forced himself to breathe slowly. "What does that mean?"
"I too possess me."
She was the most infuriating woman alive."And so you do. But you said you were mine. I thought that meant…"
She straightened a little more. "I am not responsible for your thoughts. I am, indeed yours in…in that way." Her face flushed a delicate color. "That does not mean I am not also my own. And I am not marrying you."


I often bemoan missing the feeling of the time period in historicals, Ms. Kennedy nails it. The visions of sets and scenes transport me to her time and place. It goes beyond describing a gleaming sword or smelling of horse, there is a scene where Aodh sets up a series of maps for Katarina to look at. During this time where America is newly discovered and the world as a whole is a vastly mysterious place, this scene helps the reader to feel middle ages Europe through Katarina's wonderment and curiosity about a world she can barely comprehend. It also brings our leads together with Aodh providing knowledge to Katarina, which she finds sexy. This scene sets the time period and enhances our lead's chemistry in a natural flowing and feeling way (it also was extremely hot :).

"Leave us," he ordered quietly.
"You are always clearing the room," she complained as everyone left.
"You keep saying and doing such room-clearing things," he replied, drawing her toward the fire.


Along with bemoaning the feel of time period, I too often find myself in complaint with the modern bent of character's views and actions. Katarina is chatelaine of a castle and used to commanding and leading but there are limits to her freedom, which are addressed. Her actions and attitude are strong, smart, and brave, which any women, any time and place can demonstrate but she also operates within the feeling of her time period and space. She doesn't strap on a sword and demand to ride out into battle; she spends years training the women of the castle to help defend the walls. Aodh was the same amazing way of earning the title of hero without feeling anachronistic. After witnessing Katarina's abilities and knowledge he listens to her, invites her to his council to contribute but also doesn't like Katarina to contradict him in public. He values Katarina's knowledge and abilities but also knows how he must be seen. They have amazing push and pull moments of Aodh being impressed and turned on by Katarina's thoughts and actions and also being frustrated with them.

She sighed back. "I will try to be docile, but I fear it will fail."
"I know the sentiment," he admitted grimly.


As I mentioned earlier, this story is very character driven with the focus being solidly on Katarina and Aodh's relationship. If you want sizzling chemistry, push and pull, and desire spilling off the pages, you'll get it in spades here. What I loved was the inclusion of a lighter side to our characters that are living and going through a fairly dark time. The two immediate quotes showcased the humor and playfulness that existed between our leads that helped round out their relationship and made it feel more real. This is not what I would call erotic but there is an abundance of sensual scenes in this story. I would also say though, that it is the emotion between Katarina and Aodh that make the scenes hot and not the actual description of what is taking place.

As they said their vows, they could hear the sounds of the army coming down over the hills outside.

Even with the focus being more on our couple's relationship you still get the side addition of world politics and action. Elizabeth I is a significant secondary character and she brings along the sense of danger for our couple. All this helps to keep the story moving along as there is a definite time limit for our leads to debate their actions. There could have been a few intimate scenes that might have been cut out to help the middle part move along as it sagged a tiny bit but I wouldn't want to be the one to have to make that decision.

Brilliantly historical, emotional, hot, and engaging Claiming Her is one of the best books I've read all year. I thought Aodh was a little too lusty at times, there was a spanking scene that felt slightly out of place, and having read the author's other books, I missed more of her incredible complex storylines that seemed shunted here in favor of a more emotional feel. The epilogue left my heart feeling full and craving the next book. One of Aodh's friends speaks this line:
"Mayhap I will be the one to make it to the New World after all, Aodh, aye?"
Aodh began to grin. "You will be."


This might not be a tease as to what is next but how I want it to be. If you're craving a quality middle ages historical, Kris Kennedy needs to be your go to.

Reblogged from Whiskey in the Jar Romance
SPOILER ALERT!

Be still and listen with "the ear of the heart"

Then Came Heaven - LaVyrle Spencer

There always seems to be a character in a LaVyrle Spencer book that I wish had a book of his/her own. Charles Bliss rides off into the sunset at the end of Vows to find (hopefully!) his happy ever after. I'd love to know if sensible and sweet Kerstin Johanson (The Endearment) ever found her true love. Young James Reardon of the same book was only a lad of thirteen but he had just discovered Nedda Johanson (an older woman by a year) wanted him to come courting. The "nice guy who finished last", David Melcher, of Hummingbird, was not in a terribly good place at the end, but I'm sure he could be redeemed very easily. Who's going to help him run his shoe emporium after Abbie left town after all? In Years, I still wonder what happened to Kristian Westgaard who had gone off to fly planes in World War I. Did he come back? Was he injured? And now there's Irene Pribil in Then Came Heaven, set in 1950 Minnesota.

 

Irene is the older sister (two years older) of Krystyna Olzcak, who was married to Eddie for ten years and mother of Anne and Lucy. Krystyna is killed within the first few pages of the opening chapter as she tries to outrun a train at a railroad crossing. Krystyna's death is devastating for Irene, as much as it is for Eddie but in a different way. They were close sisters, loved each other dearly, did everything together - gave each other permanents, went dancing together, made matching dresses, shared recipes, dyed curtains. Krystyna borrowed her first pair of high heels from Irene. They double dated with the Eddie and Romaine Olzcak as teenagers and told each other every secret. Well, maybe not everything. At least not Irene.

 

Irene has loved Eddie since she first saw him when she was sixteen at the Clarissa Ballroom, but Eddie had eyes only for Krystyna from the first time he saw her across the dance hall.

 

Never once, in all the years since, had Irene let Krystyna know how she felt about Eddie. Eddie either. (79)

 

Irene finished school and went to work keeping house earning meager wages for a couple in a small town not far from Browerville, returning home on weekends, and turning over her paycheck to her family as all of her siblings did. She continued working until five years ago when her mother fell and broke her collar bone. Irene returned home to help until her mother recovered, never intending to stay permanently but things didn't work out that way.

 

She had always intended to leave, preferably by getting married, but with homegrown pork and beef and cream and butter plentiful, and the cooking rich, she had gotten quite fat. There were no young men asking her to the dances on Saturday nights anymore. And since the war ended, women tended to take care of their own homes, so housekeeping jobs were fewer and harder to find. With a limited education, Irene was ill prepared to live on her own and support herself. At home with her folks she had food, shelter, company and love, and she grew complacent with these.

 

But life there was lonely and steeped in routine. All of her siblings had left and gotten married, and they rather expected Irene to remain where she was, taking care of her parents, providing them with company as they grew older, and with help during the busy times of year. (79-80)

 

A few years ago, Irene had met a man at a wedding who paid attention to her, asked to come dancing and to drive her home after, and then assaulted her in the car on the way home. When she struggled, resisted and refused repeatedly, he turned abusively ugly, and any self-esteem she might have had left was decimated.

 

When she’d continued to struggle and fight him off and beg, no, no, please no, it’s a mortal sin, no, please, he had roughly thrust her aside, called her a stupid, fat cunt, and said she should be happy any guy at all would even want to screw somebody like her, and that it was likely the only time she’d ever get the chance, so don’t come begging him when she changed her mind, because he’d never so much as look at her again. (80)

 

Then he dumps her out of his car, telling her "Get out, fatso. The walk will do you good. Might wear off a pound or two", peels off, leaving her to walk the rest of the way to her parents' house.

 

I couldn't begrudge Irene's 'knight in shining armor' view of Eddie. She needed someone as good and kind and loving as Eddie to remind her that not everyone thought she was worthless. Irene never told anyone about that night, and it had to feel like the final nail in her coffin - making her feel worthless, unwanted, undesirable, humiliated, debased, emotionally devastated.

 

After Krystyna and Eddie marry and their girls were born, Irene's only social life centered around Krystyna, Eddie, and their daughters and is her only respite from the drudgery that is her life.

 

So Irene lived on at home, seeking social diversion primarily with Krystyna and Eddie, playing cards at their house, often eating supper there, talking gardening and sewing, loving their children while growing more and more afraid she’d have none of her own. She was the one who went to their house and took care of Krystyna for ten full days after each of the babies had been born. She had bottle-fed and burped them and changed many a dirty diaper. She made clothes for their dolls, taught them how to play jacks, bought them coloring books and took them out to the farm to spend overnights so that Eddie and Krystyna could have occasional nights alone. In spring she showed them where the best spreads of trilliums bloomed in Grandpa and Grandma Pribil’s woods, and broke off fresh bloodroot and showed them how it bled. She took them to the barn and showed them the baby kittens, and let them help her cut out sugar cookies and slice rhubarb with a paring knife for the first time, folding their small hands around the knife handle and cautioning them on how to use it. At Halloween she helped Krystyna make their costumes and carve their pumpkins. At Christmas the gifts she bought them were nicer than those she bought for her other nieces and nephews. At bedtime, when she was at their house, they ran to her scrubbed and fresh in plissé pajamas and kissed Auntie Irene goodnight with the avid abandon they gave their own parents.

 

Only they were not hers.(80-81)

 

She lived vicariously through her sister and her family, loved them all fiercely and deeply and truly, and if there was a tinge of envy for what Krystyna had and she herself didn't, well, it's understandable.

 

Over the years that Irene watched the young married couple together, she grew to love them both even more. Her love for Krystyna was so pure and rewarding it would never have occurred to her to let her sister know she loved Eddie. And her love for Eddie—well, it had grown into a golden glow that filled her like a perfect dawn whenever he was near. In Irene’s eyes he was more than ideal. He was a god.

 

But now Krystyna was dead and there would be no more borrowing shoes, and giving each other permanents, and going to dances on Saturday nights. On the odd Wednesday or Sunday afternoon when the changelessness of life on the farm became suffocating, she could not drive into town and visit in Krystyna’s kitchen. Who would she laugh with? Remember her days in Long Prairie with? Tease Mother and Dad with (for Krystyna had been the one who could always make them laugh)? Who would lift her above the drudgery to that plane of companionship she’d never shared with anyone else? (82-83)

 

Except now, Irene can't hold back the guilty wish, the secret desire, that maybe she can find a place for herself with this ready-made family.

 

She stood looking after them, filled with a sense of loss complicated by the realization that Krystyna was gone forever and Eddie was no longer married. The smell of his shaving soap lingered in the hall, and in her mind the image of his wiry arms and the hair on his chest behind the strappy undershirt. Through the open door of his room she could see the foot of his bed, still mussed. She had never, in her entire lifetime, had access to the smell of a man’s shaving soap or the appearance of him or his tossed sheets in the morning, other than her father’s and the middle-aged men she’d worked for. She found it dreadful that she should be observing Eddie’s private morning routine at the expense of her sister’s life, even more dreadful to discover that she was enjoying the pseudo-intimacy.

 

She went into the girls’ room and made up their bed, picked up their dirty socks and pajamas from the floor and opened a tall chest of drawers that held their folded clothes. She and Krystyna had bought the chest at an auction sale when Krystyna was expecting Anne, and had painted it pastel green and put teddy bear decals on the fronts of the drawers. She straightened some stacks of undershirts and underpants and listened to Eddie and the girls. He was the gentlest, most loving father she had ever seen, and she felt she had the capability of being the same kind of mother. How perfect it would be if she could marry him and take care of him and the girls for the rest of her life.(87)

 

Of course, that's not the way it works out. Eddie is grateful to Irene for stepping in to help with Anne and Lucy every day, dressing them the way Krystyna always did, combing their hair just so, tying the bows on their dresses so they pouf just the way Krystyna did them, feeding them, making them laugh, loving them, easing their way through the loss of their mother. But he's also resentful of her trying to take Krystyna's place and uncomfortable around her because he has known for years how Irene really feels about him.

 

When Eddie begins to pick up the pieces of his life after Krystyna's death, it's not Irene he begins to notice. It's Sister Regina, his daughters' teacher, who is forbidden to him but with whom he feels comfortable with, develops a friendship with as he confides his problems as a single father to her in the afternoons after school while he's cleaning her classroom. When he realizes his feelings have deepened to attraction and desire for a nun, he does everything in his power to deny and destroy those feelings - prayer, confession, staying away from her classroom, never being alone with her for any reason. He also begins attending Saturday night dances once more with his brother, Romaine.

 

Sister Regina (Jean Potlocki) had begun to question her reasons for staying in her vocation long before Krystyna died, struggling with the Holy Rule or The Rule of Benedict, prescriptions which tell her, as a religious, she is to remain separate and isolated from secular - no friendships, no emotional investment, no touching, not even for two little girls who have lost their mother and turn to her for comfort. She is advised and cautioned to pray rather than grieve, to sublimate her sorrow 'toward the greater glory of God', to adhere strictly and never forget the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience she took years ago. Of the the three, obedience is the one that Sister Regina has had the most trouble with and her growing dissatisfaction with life in the convent and its attendant restrictions are suffocating for her.

 

When she, too, realizes she has developed feelings which are inappropriate and dangerous to both she and Eddie, she struggles against them even harder than he does. She fasts, she prays, she does penance, she confesses. And, she repeats the cycle over and over, seeking guidance and relief, trying to quell what she feels for Eddie. She even decides at one point to take The Discipline:

 

The ultimate penance, as far as Sister Regina was concerned, was commonly referred to as “taking the Discipline,” something she’d only once done and wasn’t sure she believed in. “Taking the Discipline” was the genteel expression for self-flagellation. This was done in the bathroom on Friday nights, with a small weapon that looked like a coat hanger with lengths of finely linked chain hanging from it by an oval loop.(154)

 

Sister Regina does eventually seek a dispensation of her vows from the Holy Father, and though Eddie is part of her reason for leaving her vocation, he is not the sole reason. She is bound by silence until it comes through, unable to talk to anyone about it, and then forced to leave without saying good-bye to her fellow sisters, the children she teaches, and definitely without telling Eddie Olczak. Months of waiting and enforced silence, and she is whisked off to her parents' farm without anybody knowing where she has gone or why.

 

Of course, Sister Regina, now Jean Potlocki, and Eddie Olczak do find their way to be together eventually. I mean, this is romance and happy ever after has to happen. I wrote a small post (http://kathyb.booklikes.com/post/1399999) about how Jean's struggle, though in reverse, reminded me of a documentary I watched years ago about Mother Prioress Dolores Hart who left Hollywood at the height of her career to become a Benedictine nun. If you'd like to read it and watch the documentary (it's about 40 minutes), follow the link. Both Jean and Mother Dolores had to be still and "listen with the ear the heart" to discover which path is right for them. But happy ever after doesn't happen for Irene Pribil.

 

Irene, by the end, slims down and resembles her vivacious sister, Krystyna, more than ever. Though she and Eddie declare they are friends only after an incident in which he almost seduces her and, though it was mutually halted, I wondered about Irene's feelings after. Eddie stopped for a jumble of reasons - a bit of lust mixed with a generous amount of loneliness and yes, not a small degree of frustration regarding Sister Regina/Jean. She stopped because the situation reminded her too much of that incident with the bastard who attempted to rape her and then verbally abused her. I loved that she was able to tell Eddie about that incident before they parted ways. There was at least some healing for Irene. However, it was clear afterwards Irene still held out hope that Eddie would see her as a woman who loved him, his daughters, and would accept crumbs from him if she could have nothing else. And that's how LaVyrle Spencer hooks me with not only the main characters in her books but with secondary characters, too, ones I love, cry with, laugh with, cheer for even against the odds. It's pretty powerful to be able to imbue a secondary character with enough honest emotion, both good and bad, to pull me right into his/her story as much as the hero and heroine.

 

Jean and Eddie marry and live in Browerville. Though I was a little troubled by how excited Jean was to pick up where Krystyna left off with Eddie and his daughters, I could see the differences between Irene and Jean. Irene would have been Krystyna's double, she would have traded her identity as Irene for a poor facsimile of Krystyna, and neither she nor Eddie would ever have been happy. Krystyna would always be a ghost in the house with them. Jean, though she is eager to be and do all the things Krystyna did for Eddie, Anne, and Lucy as well as the community will put her own stamp of individuality into anything she does, making it her own instead of a carbon copy of Krystyna. Krystyna's memory will be preserved, both will continue to miss and love her, but she will not be an obstacle to true happiness in Jean and Eddie's marriage.

 

I was happy for Jean and Eddie, but I wanted to cry for Irene. She has firmly been pushed into the background. I admired her for her graciousness when Eddie and Jean marry, and I sympathized with her reasons for not being able to watch the man she still loves marry another woman.

 

Richard and Mary Pribil came, too, but not Irene. Irene, they said, wasn’t feeling well that day and had decided at the last minute to stay home.

 

Anne and Lucy did, indeed, act as flower girls. They were outfitted in their first long dresses ever, petal-pink and pouffed over crinolines, lovingly stitched by their aunt Irene who sent a little note via her parents telling the girls how sorry she was not to see them march down the aisle, but that she’d be thinking of them all day long. (328)

 

Irene needed a happy ever after. In my mind, I invented a tall, ginger-haired Irishman with twinkling blue eyes who buys the Clarissa Ballroom and falls immediately and hard for Irene one Saturday night when he sees her dancing with Romaine to the tune of "Goodnight, Irene." He sweeps her off her feet and marries her within a month of their first dance. I wanted that for Irene Pibril, just as I wanted more for Charles Bliss, Kerstin Johanson, James Reardon, David Melcher, and Kristian Westgaard. I'm sure there will be more characters like them as I continue to read LaVyrle Spencer's backlist.

SPOILER ALERT!

The Endearment

The Endearment - LaVyrle Spencer

I have loved you when I did not know you existed, Anna. I have loved the dream of you. I have begun loving you before I left my mother's arms. I have loved you while I find this land to which I would bring you and while I cut its timbers to build this home for you and while I reap my grains for you and build my fire for you . . . I know all my life you are waiting somewhere for me.The Endearment

 

How many times have you longed for more books with character-driven stories, books that weave external conflict seamlessly with internal conflict, books with richly detailed settings and evoking a great sense of time period, ones with characters you laugh with, cry with, cheer for, and celebrate with, fall in love with? The Endearment by LaVyrle Spencer is just such a book and follows Morning Glory, Vows, Years, and Hummingbird on my 'in case of fire' shelf. I feel totally inadequate in even attempting to relate how much I love LaVyrle Spencer's body of work, but The Endearment deserves all the paltry praise I can wring out of my head and heart.

 

Karl Lindstrom (whose face would "not curdle milk") is twenty-five, a Swedish immigrant, who settled in the frontier of Minnesota, the nearest thing to a village is a primitive outpost called Long Prairie. Karl had immigrated looking for land which was hard to find in his native but beloved Skäne, and he came alone, without any of his large, loving family, making a place for himself and his dreams in this place which reminded him of his home, with hope that his family would follow, but they didn't. Without family, without the familiarity of his customs and people who loved him, without human companionship of any kind to relieve the unrelenting loneliness, Karl feels the isolation very deeply, with only the sympathetic ears of his pet goat, Nanna, to listen to his woes.

 

 

Goats make maybe the best pets of all. They are loyal and quiet and do not eat much. During the winter blizzards, there were many times when I was grateful for the company of my Nanna to listen to me talk and never complain when I tell her how impatient I am to have neighbors, and how I miss my family back in Sweden and how I think spring will never come. Nanna, she just chews her cud and puts up with me.” His eyes strayed to Anna as he spoke, then back to the boy. (77)

 

 

His loneliness leads him to place an advertisement in newspapers back East, seeking a mail-order bride, and his requirements and expectations are high. He wants a woman his age, "an able cook, an experienced housekeeper, a willing farm worker." Karl wants his bride-to-be to be without encumbrances (like a little brother), and one who must be able to read and write so that she can teach their children.

 

Anna Reardon ("my whiskey-haired Anna")is just seventeen years old and is alone in the world except for her thirteen-year old brother, James. Their mother, Barbara, was a prostitute in Boston who had no time or love for the two children known as "Barbara's brats" and died of "the disease all women of her profession fear." Though James has enough education to read and write, Anna has had none.

 

"Sometimes, when our mother got a fit of conscience, she'd make him go to school, but she didn't see any girl needing to know her letters, so she left me alone.”

 

“What kind of mother would only send a boy to school now and then, when she had a fit of conscience? Conscience over what?”

 

This time James saved Anna from lying or revealing the full truth. He burst in. “We didn't have much, even before Barbara got sick and died. We lived with . . . with friends of hers most of the time, and I had to go out and try to find work to help. I guess she thought I was kind of young to be out working, and sometimes she'd get . . . well, sorry, kind of. That's when I'd have to go to school. I managed to go enough to learn to read and write a little.” (52)

 

After Barbara's death, Anna mended clothes for a meager amount of money while James picked pockets or stole food from markets to survive. Both slept in the brothel till the rooms filled up, then bunked down at a local church when they were thrown out for the night. Anna and James's situation became dire when the ladies of the house began to urge Anna to join their ranks, but James found Karl's advertisement in the paper. So he wrote letters to Karl, dictated by Anna, letters full of lies. The lies were not easy for either of them, rising from desperation of a homeless girl and her young brother. Those lies were "like a hair shirt upon Anna's conscience ever since."

 

Anna Reardon had done the unforgivable. She had lied through her teeth to get Karl Lindstrom to marry her! She had intentionally deceived the man in order to get him to send her passage money to Minnesota as his mail-order bride. He was expecting her to be twenty-five years old, an able cook, an experienced housekeeper, a willing farm worker and . . . a virgin.

 

Furthermore, he was expecting her to arrive alone.

 

The only thing Anna hadn't lied about was her looks. She had accurately described herself as whiskey-haired, Irish, about as tall as a mule's withers, on the thin side, with brown eyes, flat ears, a few freckles, passable features, all her teeth and no pox marks.(1)

 

One by one, most of Anna's lies are found out, very quickly, within a few hours of their first meeting. Her age, her brother, her inability to cook, her illiteracy, her inexperience on a farm. Karl is accepting and forgiving of them all with some encouragement and prodding from the priest who witnesses their vows. But there's one last lie to come to light, one whose revelation is the hardest for Karl to forgive and forget. The timing of it, coming at a time when both are beginning to discover they love each other, is heartbreaking because this is the one that drives an almost insurmountable wedge between them.

 

The long trip to Karl's land is filled with Karl's patient teaching of both James and Anna of their new home, the land he loves, and gives such a beautiful sense of early Minnesota Territory. Karl's knowledge of the different trees and the wood they provide is almost a religion unto itself as is his reverence for nature.

 

They were passing through a place of green magnificence. The forest was built of verdant walls, broken here and there by peaceful embrasures where prairie grasses fought for a stronghold. Trees of giant proportions canopied above saplings vying for the sky. The sky was embroidered with stitches of leafy design. Anna leaned her head way back to gaze at the dappled emerald roof above. (54)

 

As he points to the maples with "nectar such as you will find no place else", how it polishes to "shine like water"; yellow locusts which "splits as smooth and true as the flight of an apple falling from a tree"; the chestnut yielding "boards as flat as milk on a plate"; the beeches for whittling and carving; oaks for 'shingles that will keep a roof tight for fifty years", their natural grains catching "the rain and send it running in channels as true as the course of a river over a falls"; red oak for fence rails; ash for making axe handles to make it "light and strong and springy"; pine, the "best friend the axeman" because beneath the bark is wood read to be made into boards, interspersed with his memories of his 'morfar" and "far" (grandfather and father) teaching him about trees, wood, and riving, some of Karl's love for his land is transferred to Anna and James.

 

"You must ask a tree to do what it does best, then it will never disappoint you. And so I split the locust, carve the beech and make boards from pine and chestnut. It is the same with people. I would not ask a blacksmith to bake me a pie, would I? Or a baker to shoe my horse.” Karl tipped a little grin their way. “If I did, I would perhaps have to eat my horseshoe and tack the pie to my horse's hoof." (55)

 

His love and respect for the land, its resources is compelling to both Anna and James, opening up a well-spring of hope, a sense of purpose, and life-affirming optimism neither had ever experienced.

 

Elder is for shade and beauty.” Karl smiled. “We must not forget that some trees are given to us for nothing more than shade and beauty, and if this is all we ask of them, they are happy.” (57)

 

Karl sounds perfect, doesn't he? Despite his anger, his disappointment, his disillusionment with Anna, he is patient, kind, considerate, and accepting of both James and Anna. He begins to like Anna, to flirt with her, and he gives her time to grow accustomed to him before consummating their marriage. He shows her how to cook, to make lye soap, to light a fire, all the things that she lied about in her letters.

 

Within the heart of Karl Lindstrom fell a heavy sadness. How he had looked forward to this day, thinking always how proud he would be when he took his little whiskey-haired Anna into his sod house for the first time. He would proudly show her the fireplace he had built of fieldstone from his own soil, the table and chairs he had fashioned of sturdy black walnut from his own trees. He remembered the long hours spent braiding buffalo grass into ropes to restring the log frame of the bed for her. How carefully he had dried last season's corn husks to make the softest tickings a woman could want. He'd spent precious hours collecting cattails, plucking their down to fill pillow ticks for her. The buffalo robes had been aired and shaken and rubbed with wild herbs to make them smell sweet. Lastly, he had picked a sheaf of sweet clover, its fragrance headier than any other, and had lain it on the spot where their two pillows met, in the center of the bed.

 

In all these ways Karl Lindstrom had sought to tell his Anna that he prized her, welcomed her and strove to please her. (20-21)

 

He takes James under his wing, giving him confidence and a positive male role model he's never had. Using humor and gentle teasing with his Anna ('my Onnuh'), he cheers her on, encourages her to keep trying, despite her failures.

 

Anna tries to learn all the things Karl expects of her, but her cooking experiments fail more than succeed (so much so that even Nanna the goat won't eat the charred, tough remains of meals thrown out the door of the sod house) and her housewifely duties are disappointing. She's skinny, prefers britches to dresses, has a fiery temperament, her hair has a mind of its own, and she's happier outside the house than she is inside. But they grow to like, respect, and begin to love each other in spite of their differences. Maybe because of them.

 

What LaVyrle Spencer does best here is weave the external conflict of Anna learning to survive a very different environment in the frontier of Minnesota with an internal conflict of striving to be all that Karl dreamed she would be before he discovered all her lies. More, the revelation of the final lie - what Anna was forced to do in order to provide passage and new clothes for James to accompany her to Minnesota - and Karl's inability to forgive her ratchets up her struggle, making her feel even more inadequate, without pride in any of her accomplishments, and harshly judging herself as someone not deserving of Karl, of happiness, of love.

 

The entrance of a Swedish family into the community (including a buxom, sweet Swedish daughter with a coronet of blonde braids, who knows how to cook Swedish pancakes and make lingonberry jam) on the heels of Anna and Karl's emotional rift and his physical and emotional withdrawal from her increases the distance between them, especially when Karl appears to prefer Kerstin and her family to Anna. Anna and Karl's argument over harsh correction of James is more about a desire to punish Anna than to correct James. Both say things they regret but both are too proud to apologize. Karl storms off, and Anna's isolation and sense of failure is bone deep.

 

There was an opportunity to make Kerstin the proverbial "other woman", the paragon of Karl's dreams when he immediately seeks out Kerstin and her family after the argument, but LaVyrle Spencer takes another path. Instead, Kerstin is the one to make Karl own up to the mistakes he's made in the past several weeks with Anna. Three days of separation on a trip to grind wheat, several bolts of pink gingham, a bar of chamomile soap instead of that "lardy" lye soap, five glass windows for the log house, and a brand new stove to cook with instead of a fireplace is Karl's olive branch on his return.

 

The gifts he brings back for Anna aren't the only way he redeems himself for the way he refused to understand and forgive Anna. Anna had begged for his forgiveness many times and in many ways, but he was unwilling or unable to give her that. His return to the farm finds Karl changed in a significant way.

 

Anna and Karl tiptoe around each other, though she's "My Onnuh" again, and he gently teases her as they work to finish the log house. Finally, the log house is complete, the oak door has been hung, the windows placed. All is ready for Karl, Anna, and James to move in, to become a family, and to fully realize the dream of family that began with Karl but was cherished as much by both Anna and James. Anna's preparations for their first night in their home mirrors Karl's actions as he prepared for his "Onnuh's" first visit to his sod house.

 

She listened for the first sizzle of the kettle while she put their house in order. She hurried to hang the curtains at the windows on arching willow withes. Next she laid a matching gingham cloth upon the table, then their dishes, knives, mugs. She used precious minutes to pick the wildflowers, running all the way out to the edge of the field where they grew. These she placed in the center of the table in a thick pottery milk pitcher: clusters of Karl's beloved Minnesota. There were the late-blooming lavender asters, brown-eyed susans, lacy white northern bedstraw, feathery goldenrod, rich purple loosestrife, brilliant pink blazing star and lastly . . . most importantly . . . she interspersed the bouquet with fragrant stalks of yellow sweet clover. Standing back, she took a moment to assess her handiwork, wondering what Karl would say when he walked in and saw it.(316)

 

In a pink gingham hand-sewn dress, Anna waits for Karl wondering what he'll notice first, what he'll think of the table, the curtains, the dress, the braids in her hair, herself. If she'll once again be a failure.

 

Karl searched his mind for the proper word. But, much like the first time he had ever laid eyes on her there was only one word he could say. It came out, as it had so often, questioning, wondering, telling, a response to all he saw before him, a question about all he saw before him. All he had, all he was, all he hoped to be was wrapped up in that single word: “Onnuh?” (319)

 

Over Swedish pancakes and rose hip tea, their reconciliation shows Anna that she wasn't the only one who needed to learn, to change, to grow.

 

“Did you think, Anna, that maybe it was not you who needed to change, but me?” he asked now, so softly.

 

“You?” Her head snapped up and she laughed a little too harshly. “Why, you're so perfect, Karl, any woman would be a fool to want you to change. There's not a single thing on this earth that you can't do or won't try or can't learn. You're patient, and you have a . . . a grand sense of humor, and you care about things so much, and you're honest and . . . and I have yet to see you defeated by anything. Why, I haven't found a single thing you don't know how to do.”

 

“Except forgive, Anna,” he admitted before the dusky room grew silent.

 

". . .I had you, and I could not look past the one and only thing you could not change and try to forgive it. I have held onto my stubborn Swedish pride all these weeks, long after I could see that until I forgave you that one thing, you would not find pride in anything else you did.”(328-329)

 

Karl gives Anna a gift more precious than gingham or soap or even a house with wood floors and a stove to cook on. He lets her know that he recognizes the million and one ways she tried to make amends, to atone, to change herself into a person he could love and respect, but he makes sure she knows she already is that person without changing one thing about herself:

 

He reached to cover her lips with his fingertips, stopping her words. “You are the one who deserves, Anna. More than I have given. It is not enough that I have taken up my axe and cut trees to build you a home and that I have cleared land and raised food for its table and bought you a stove and a bar of soap. A home is only a home because of the people in it. A home is only a home when it has love. And so if I give you all these things, what does it matter when I withhold myself?”

 

In his own fiercely honorable way, Karl kept his eyes glued to her face while he said all this. When a man speaks of things which mean much to him, he does not hide it from showing in his face.

 

"Forgive me, Anna,” he whispered hoarsely, “forgive me for all these weeks.”

 

Into his azure eyes Anna gazed wonderingly, wanting this moment to draw on into the forever of their years. “Oh, Karl, there is nothing to forgive. I'm the one who should be asking.”

 

No,” he uttered, “you asked long ago, on the night you picked blueberries for me.”

Still kneeling, he took her hands apart and lowered his face into them where they lay on her lap. He needed so badly to be touched by her, to be assured of her forgiveness now. She looked down at the back of his head, at the blond wisps that waved into the shadowed hollow of his neck. Her love surged in devastating swells that overflowed from her eyes, blurring Karl's image before her.

 

To Anna came the intrinsic understanding that he must have the words she alone could give. Karl. Karl who in all ways was good and loving and kind. Karl needed her absolution from a transgression of her own making. She felt his flesh upon her palm and moved her other hand to twine her fingers in his hair. “I forgive you, Karl,” she said softly, knowing utter fullness at the words, at the look in his eyes as he raised them to her face again. (329-331)

 

Karl and Anna find mutual generosity and honor in 'sweet mercy', letting go of resentment, anger, and guilt. Anna had sought Karl's forgiveness in word and deed, many times. She was patient when he asked for time, she offered up her reasons for her actions, not excuses. She understood when he withdrew from her even though it hurt. She persevered through it all when she could have just given up. Karl, in turn, could do no less for the hurt he caused her. There is a beautiful symmetry in the clover he placed on their bed at the beginning for the Anna he had never met and the clover he plucks from the milk pitcher and places on their bed in the log house at the end of the book.

 

Anna opened the door and stood gazing out at the night for a moment. “Karl, I really never felt what you did about this place and all its plenty until I thought I had lost you. But I know now. I really know.”

 

“Come to bed, Anna.”

 

She smiled over her shoulder, then closed the door and padded across the newly hewn boards of the floor to the candlelight at their bedside.

 

Karl stood waiting there for her.

 

And in the center of the bed, between their two pillows, lay a single shaft of sweet clover, plucked from the bouquet that had graced their dinner table, where lingonberry jam now dried on two forgotten plates.(340-341)

Then Came Heaven - LaVyrle Spencer The Ear of the Heart: An Actress' Journey from Hollywood to Holy Vows - Dolores Hart, Richard DeNeut

I'm reading LaVyrle Spencer's last book, Then Came Heaven, which is an unusual story set in 1950 and features a Benedictine nun who eventually leaves the religious life and a widower who lost his young wife in a train accident. The heroine, Sister Regina, has been a nun for eleven years but has been struggling with her vocation for a while. A crisis of the soul, so to speak, chafing against the rules, restrictions, the separateness of her life in the order and the secular world.

 

It reminded me of this documentary of Mother Prioress Dolores Hart. Dolores Hart was a very successful film actress starring in movies with Elvis Presley, Montgomery Clift, Robert Wagner, was compared to Grace Kelly,  and even enjoyed success on Broadway, winning a Tony for The Pleasure of His Company. She was also engaged when she decided to become a noviate in the Abbey of Regina Laudis, a contemplative order, in Bethlehem, Connecticut. Not too long ago, she wrote a book about her journey, The Ear of the Heart, which I enjoyed a lot.

 

The title sounds strange, I know, but is the first line in the Holy Rule of St. Benedict which teaches and guides those in monastic life about the virtues of humility, silence, and obedience as well as rules for daily living down to the last detail including how one dresses, what to eat and drink, how visitors are received, and on and on. 

 

 Listen carefully, my child, to your master's precepts, and incline the ear of your heart.

 

Those perscriptions set out in the Rule are at the heart of Sister Regina's crisis (she especially struggles with obedience), but Sister Regina, just as Mother Dolores did before leaving Hollywood for a contemplative religious order, has to listen with her heart before she can decide whether to continue on as Sister Regina or become Jean Potlocki again. 

Indiscreet

Indiscreet - Mary Balogh

Damn. Like Alice, I jumped down a rabbit hole feet first, saw the bottle labeled "Drink Me", quaffed it down like a sailor too long deprived of shore leave and rum and was off on yet another Mary Balogh adventure. In this case, the bottle was the glorious Indiscreet, and, like Alice, I found it a very tasty concoction indeed. But I've learned one distressing thing about reading a Balogh book. Once I delve into the Balogh stack, it's never just once. I'm pretty sure another one or two (possibly four or five) Balogh books will ensue after Indiscreet. Damn. And, I had made such progress on reducing Mt. TBR to a more manageable little mole hill.

 

If you haven't read Indiscreet, you really should. Really. Indiscreet needs to be read to fully appreciate such a wonderfully strong, well rounded heroine who has wrongly suffered censure, scorn and isolation not only from ton society but from those closest to her, her family. A heroine who finds redemption when she stops letting 'life happen' to her and becomes fully engaged instead of passively accepting. It needs to be read as one of the most finely crafted romances in which a rakish, arrogant, selfish hero's redemption comes about not only by the heroine inadvertently holding a mirror up to his lack of consideration and respect for her but also by his own much needed self-reflection and self-examination. Read it to see how charming and claustrophobic the village of Boden-on-the-Water is, a comforting familiar sense of community where the up side is everybody knows your name and the down side is well, everybody knows not only your name but all about your business. And what they don't know, they speculate on or make up to suit a need to titillate, to judge, to censure, to be entertained. Read it for its excellent cast of secondary characters, some of whom are a nod to a few Jane Austen characters. Read it for a most excellent deployment of CHIN utilized by a romance heroine. (Thank you, "Miss Bates Reads Romance", for I will never read about an uplifted heroine's chin in the same way again.) Just read it.

 

Indiscreet begins with a premise of mistaken identity and flawed assumptions. Mrs. Catherine Winters, a widowed music teacher in the small village of Boden-on-the-Water, mistakes Rex Adams, Viscount Rawleigh, for his amiable twin brother, Claude, as he rides through the village. She smiles and curtsies. Viscount Rawleigh, in turn, mistakenly assumes the smile of the beautiful widow to be an invitation to end his boredom and escape his sister-in-law's determined matchmaking while visiting his brother for a few weeks. He doesn't wait long to make Catherine an indecent proposal, and she doesn't think twice about refusing it.


"You would pay me,” she said, “for lying with you? For going to bed with you? For allowing you access to my body?”

 

He could not have put it much more erotically himself.

 

“Yes, ma’am,” he said. “I would pay you. Though I would consider it as much my concern to give you pleasure as yours to give it to me.”

 

“Get out,” she said so quietly that it took him a moment to realize what she had said. He raised his eyebrows.

 

“Ma’am?”

 

“Get out,” she said much more distinctly, the flush returning to her face, her nostrils flaring. “Get out and never come back.”

 

“You have led me to this moment,” he said, “only to tell me to get out? Have I misread the signs? There have been too many for me to be mistaken.” She was on her feet.

 

“Get out.” He took his time about getting up. He looked closely at her. She meant what she was saying. There was no chance that she was playing hard to get. He had misread the signs. Or if he had not, he had misinterpreted them. She was a virtuous woman—why else would she have taken up residence in such a village? And she was a proud woman—he should never have admitted that he was prepared to pay her. She was attracted to him. Of that there was little doubt. But she had wanted a mild flirtation—something that did not interest him.

 

But perhaps if he had not rushed into a false interpretation, he might have led her by slow degrees from flirtation to dalliance to an affair. That might have taken weeks, though.

 

Now it was too late to find out how it might have turned out the other way.

 

“No,” he said as she opened her mouth to speak again, “you do not need to repeat it.” He got to his feet. “My heartfelt apologies, ma’am. Your servant.” He made her a curt bow before striding out into the passageway, picking up his hat, and letting himself out into the night. (45)


Rex is still working under a miscalculation, believing Catherine refused because she wanted a 'mild flirtation' when she is really infuriated that her hard-won respect, peace and contentment has been dismissed as if it were nothing, that in his overbearing arrogance to have what he wants when he wants it, for however long he wants and to hell with the consequences to her, he has failed to see her as a person in her own right. She has travelled this road before, after all.


She was not going to avoid him. Or hang her head if she saw him again. Or blush or stammer or otherwise give him the satisfaction of knowing that he had discomposed her.

 

She was still angry—very angry—that the female state made one so weak, gave one such little freedom. She was angry that the world of men had so little use in it for women except in one capacity. She was angry that it was a man’s world she lived in. For a few moments, until Toby came trotting back into the house and she closed the door, she felt the old raw and empty feeling of helplessness. But she was not going to feed such negative emotions.

 

She had fought too hard for her peace to have it shattered by a heartless, arrogant rake who believed that because she had smiled at him twice she would smile a third time as he climbed into her bed to take his pleasure of her. (51)


And this leads to one of the best deployments of a chin raise by a heroine I believe I've ever read. Catherine plays around with not going to Bodley House the next morning to give Claude and Clarissa's children their music lessons, but Catherine refuses to be intimidated, diminished. She knows she is in the right. She gave him no encouragement to make that proposal save a smile that was intended for his brother.

 

But Rex is feeling the sting of humiliation and chalks up her refusal of his advances more as the manipulations of a 'tease.'


His prim, straitlaced widow who was in reality a tease and a hypocrite. He could not remember a time when he had so miscalculated with a woman. He did not feel very kindly disposed toward her. (56)


Their next meeting, in the music room at Bodley House, is tense and she as good as shames Rex with the merest lift of her chin.


She did not look away again as he expected her to do. Neither did she blush. She kept her eyes steady on his and her chin came up perhaps half an inch. He almost disgraced himself by allowing his eyes to waver from hers, but he pursed his lips instead and forced himself to look at her with deliberate nonchalance. She was made of stern stuff, it appeared. And he had to confess that she was refreshing after half a morning in Ellen Hudson’s company. (57) (my emphasis)


That he felt himself wanting to look away from her direct gaze is as revelatory about Rex as it is about Catherine though he still doesn't comprehend that 'No' actually meant just that and wasn't a devious ploy to whet his appetite. It does indicate there is a conscience in there somewhere, rusty though it may be. For now, Catherine is still a thing to be won, a challenge to his appeal to the opposite sex. She is not a person with the capacity and intelligence to make choices, to make decisions, to take action, or not, as the case may be. Catherine's self-determination has been dismissed as if it were a merely bothersome fly at a picnic.


He was left alone with Catherine Winters, who was standing straight-backed and square-chinned close to the pianoforte, glaring at him.

 

Now, why the devil had he done that? Why had he not seized the chance to escape when it had presented itself on a golden platter? She was challenging him. That was what she was doing.

 

She was not behaving with the distressed modesty he would have expected from a virtuous woman who had been presented with a very improper proposal in her own home just the evening before. He clasped his hands behind him and strolled toward her. (61)


He is relentless in his pursuit of Catherine despite her clear, repeated refusals of any relationship that might cost her her everything she holds dear in Boden-on-the-Water and despite her acknowledgement of growing attraction to Rex. It culminates in a final blistering showdown which sets the scene for Rex's restitution and redemption.


"I will not be your mistress,” she said.

 

“Why not?” His head moved an inch closer to hers. “Why ever not? Do you believe I will mistreat you? I am accustomed to giving as much pleasure as I receive.”

Even then a treacherous desire stabbed through her.

 

"I will not,” she said. “And I do not have to give a reason. I will not. I have told you so before. I tried to avoid you tonight by retiring to the music room. I tried to stop you from bringing me home. I tried to stop you from coming beyond the postern door with me. I have been very clear in my denials.”

 

As your body has been very clear in its invitations,” he said. He was definitely angry now. “You want marriage, is that it, Catherine? You set your favors at the highest price of all. Well, I will pay it. Marry me.”

 

She was shocked into silence for a few moments. “You would marry me,” she said, “in order to go to bed with me?”

 

“Precisely,” he said. “If there is no other way. I want you that much. Are you satisfied?”

 

Yes, I am satisfied,” she said, cold suddenly and as far from feeling desire as she had ever felt. She brushed his arms aside when they reached for her. “I am satisfied that my reason and my common sense have been advising me well for the past two weeks. I am not just a female body, my lord. This is not an empty shell. There is a person inside. A person who dislikes you and resents your arrogant assumption that a few kisses and caresses are sufficient to establish your right to make use of my body for your pleasure. You have done nothing but pursue me since I first mistook you for your brother and smiled at you. Even though I said no quite clearly when you first called on me, you would not believe that any woman could be insane enough to resist you. Well, this woman prefers insanity to becoming your possession.”

 

Why, you bitch,” he said quietly and almost pleasantly. “I do believe you are enjoying yourself. I will give you no further opportunity. You will be plagued with me no longer after tonight, ma’am. I am sure we will be mutually delighted not to set eyes on each other again.” (154-155)


The first half of Indiscreet is more Catherine's story, I believe. It's her backstory of being raped, facing a pregnancy alone and spurned not just by society but abandoned by her family, the steps she took to reclaim her life and deal with all her losses. But her contentment is shattered because, of course, Rex was seen leaving Catherine's darkened cottage which sets all the tongues in the village wagging. The consequences are devastating - ostracism by the villagers, eviction from the cottage by Clarissa Adams, and a visit from the Reverend Lovering.


I will not cross this threshold,” he said with quiet solemnity. “It is my duty to inform you, Mrs. Winters, that fornicators and sinners are not welcome to worship with the righteous in the church of which I have been accorded the honor of being pastor. I deeply regret having to make this visit. But I never shirk what I consider my duty.”

 

She found herself smiling. “No fornicators or sinners,” she said. “Who is left
to attend church, then, sir?”

 

He regarded her sternly. “Levity is not appropriate to the gravity of the circumstances, ma’am,” he said.

 

“So you believe the story too?” she said. “You are here to cast your stone along with everyone else?”

 

“Ma’am,” he said, his expression unchanged, “I believe the evidence of my own eyes. I saw his lordship leaving here last night. One cannot blame him, of course. Any man who is caught in the snare of a Jezebel is to be pitied rather than censured. His lordship has seen the error of his ways and has left Bodley House.”

 

“Good day, Reverend,” she said (177)


The second half, then, is weighed heavily for Rex's redemption and what he does to make amends to Catherine. It doesn't start out that way, because he pretty much forces Catherine into marriage with him without knowing her secrets, without even asking why Catherine Winters is really Lady Catherine Winsmore. When all is revealed, when he learns exactly how she has been victimized by the villain, Rex begins to see his earlier pursuit of her differently, drawing parallels with his reprehensible behavior and the man who raped Catherine five years ago. Everything he does afterward - reuniting her with her brother and father, restoring her good name and reputation in society, and revenge on the man who ravished her - is done because he comes to know her and love her. Rex's transformation from the selfish, arrogant, rake to a perceptive, protective, loving man was one of the things I enjoyed most in Indiscreet.

 

I loved the character of Miss Agatha Downes, the spinster daughter of the former rector of Boden-on-the-Water, who definitely calls to mind Miss Hetty Bates of Emma and who is respectable and admirable without being intimidated by the village society or bitter about her circumstances. That she is the one to offer solace and friendship to Catherine when everyone turns their back also echoes the kindred generosity of spirit found in Miss Bates. Instead of vitriolic name-calling and judgmental attacks, Miss Downes cuts up currant cake into bite-sized pieces, brews hot tea, and offers Catherine steadfast support and friendship, compassion and understanding.


I do not know the truth of the matter,” Miss Downes said. “I do not want to know and do not need to know. It is none of my business. But the truth of my religion is my business. Papa always taught me that it was my personal business, that I should not let even a minister of religion, even Papa himself, speak for me when what he has to say is against the truth as I know it. The truth as I know it, the truth as Mother and Papa always taught it, is that the church is for sinners. Not for anyone else. Just for sinners. Being a sinner is one’s membership certificate in the church—that was Papa’s little joke. I am a member of the church, Mrs. Winters. I let that fact speak for itself.”

 

"Mrs. Winters is a lady, we said to each other. But you did not need to say it, dear. I did not need to know. I did not come to pry. I merely thought—and Mother thought—that you might like a little chat and a nice cup of tea. Oh, goodness me, it looks as if you have been baking for an army.” Her eyes had alighted on the table and all the cakes that were to have been delivered to the elderly.(182-183)


And if Miss Downes echoes Miss Bates, how could I not see a connection between the obsequious, dully deferential Reverend Lovering and fawning and morally upright Mr. Collins of Pride & Prejudice? Without a doubt, Clarissa Adams, Rex's sister-in-law, playing Lady Bountiful to all the peasants certainly was cast in the same mold as the overbearing, domineering Lady Catherine de Bourgh. As Lady Catherine's visit to Elizabeth advising her that she was 'polluting' Pemberley if she dared to marry Mr. Darcy served to unite Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth, so, too, did Clarissa's eviction of Catherine from the cottage unwittingly serve as the catalyst to bring Catherine and Rex together. The repercussions of Clarissa's actions and the effect on her marriage to Claude were longstanding and devastating.

 

Read Indiscreet for the chin, for the Austen allusions, for any and all these reasons. Read it for the pleasure of enjoying a depth of characterization it's very hard to find these days, a multi-layered story, and a romance based on mutual attraction and respect and without one shred of insta-lust. Read it for what is says about choice, consent, self-determination, comfort, friendship, pride, and living life actively instead of passively. Read it for one of the best declarations of love from a heroine to a hero I've run across in a while. Indiscreet is without a doubt deserving of all the stars.

SPOILER ALERT!

Vows . . . The heart has its reasons

Vows by LaVyrle Spencer(April 1, 1988) Mass Market Paperback - LaVyrle Spencer

Vows by LaVyrle Spence is testament to one thing at least: Love ain't no freaking Hallmark card with hearts and flowers and sweet sentimental sayings with cute Cupids shooting benign arrows of love into the hearts of his victi-, erm, I mean, potential lovers. For Tom, Emily, Charles, Tarsy, Josephine, Edwin, and Fannie, love is messy, confusing, painful, selfish, sneaky, heartbreaking, sad. And it's also joyous, selfless, exciting, passionate, life-changing, and wonderful. Love, as someone said, hurts. A lot. The heart wants who and what it wants and has its 'reasons, which reason does not know' and is felt in a thousand things. If you read Vows, you'll probably feel each and every one of those thousand things, and it's a book that will stay with you for days afterward. At least it was that way for me.

 

The messy, painful, etc part of love in Vows stems from a love squared situation for two couples and a love triangle for three older characters. The love squared portion involves Tom Jeffcoat, Tarsy Fields, Charles Bliss and Emily Walcott. Or to put it another way: Tom has a budding physical intimacy with Tarsy to stave off loneliness while falling in love with Emily who is attracted to Tom but is engaged to but not 'in love' with Charles Bliss who is deeply in love with Emily and has been forever. Oh, and Tom and Charles are BFFs. Phew! Did you get that? Let me confuse you more. Emily parents, Edwin and Josephine, have been married for twenty years and though Edwin has remained faithful to his marriage vows physically he has been in love with his wife's cousin, Fannie Cooper, for at least as long as his marriage has lasted. To ramp up the angst another level, Josephine is dying of consumption and, fully aware of Edwin's secret love for her cousin, has invited Fannie into their home ostensibly to ease the burden of her family until she dies but is in reality releasing Edwin from his vows to her so that he can pursue happiness with Fannie after her death. See? It's complicated.

 

Tom Jeffcoat is newly arrived in Sheridan, Wyoming from Springfield, Missouri. What would make a young, hardworking, honest, fair to a fault, adventurous young man with strong family ties and a history of smithing that goes back generations pull up stakes and travel one thousand miles to resettle as a stranger in a strange land? Something pretty powerful, I think. Powerful enough for a proud man to borrow monety from his grandparents in order to strike out on his own, far away from all that's familiar, with hopes of making new friends, becoming a part of another community, setting up his livery and blacksmithing business. The short answer is a woman. The longer answer is he is heartsore from having his childhood friend and sweetheart jilt him just weeks before their wedding, choosing a man completely opposite of Tom, one who has wealth, social position, and polish.

 

One of the first people Tom meets in Sheridan is Emily Walcott. Emily is no wilting violet, nor is she the epitome of Victorian womanhood. She does not wear gingham dresses 'with ten-gallon petticoats, and starched white aprons.' I'm pretty sure Emily doesn't even know what a 'leghorn hat' looks like like, and she's as 'thin as a whip snake and about as shapely.' Ouch. Emily surprises and confuses Tom from their first meeting, mistaking her for a 'skinny boy', 'dressed in worn blue britches, a faded red shirt, black suspenders, an ankle-length leather apron, and a floppy brown wool cap with a button on its crown', swearing at a horse while she repairs a quarter crack in his hoof. Oh, and I forgot to mention the 'dung-crusted cowboy boots' on her dirty bare feet. Not even a hint of 'wispy lisle stockings.'

 

I didn't particularly like Emily at first. She's mouthy, bad-tempered to the point of abrasiveness, and seems to have a huge chip on her shoulder. At least in her dealings with Tom. Part of her 'hate at first sight' is because Tom mistook her for a man, calls her 'tomboy', and his reaction to her less than ideal feminine appearance rankles with her. A larger part is, perhaps, because Tom's new business will be directly in competition with her father's livery business, and Emily is daddy's girl and loyal to a fault. But I believe the biggest part of the antagonism between these two is the instant awareness each has for the other.

 

I did change my opinion of Emily pretty quickly. Tom, after all, has preconceived notions of the ideal woman, a paragon of frills and lace like Jilting Julia, his former fiancée, and he needed those expectations shaken and stirred. Emily was just the woman to do that for him. Her strong personality, independent spirit, and unconventional behavior has a lot to do with the way Edwin encouraged her to be her own person, to speak up for herself as her mother Josephine was never allowed to do. Emily has enjoyed the freedom to think for herself, to choose her own path as a veterinarian, to follow the beat of a different drum other than traditional wife and mother, very much like his own beloved Fannie.

 

It was because of his memories of Fannie, he knew, that he’d never resisted any of Emily’s outrageous wishes. Emily was so much like the Fannie he remembered that he loved her unconditionally and had always secretly hoped she might turn out like Fannie—part rebel, part sprite, but all woman. (13)

 

Sparks fly between Tom and Emily from their first meeting in her father's livery and carry the tension and conflict well over past the halfway mark in Vows. The tension in the last half is far more complicated.

 

Has anyone ever told you that you’re a rude, infernal pain in the hindside?” She grabbed the boot, overturned an enamel bucket, and dropped onto it to pull the boot back on. Before she managed to do so, he snatched it from her hand and went down on one knee to do the honors.

 

“Allow me, miss. And to answer your question, yes, my mother and my grandmother and my fiancée and my teachers. All my life I’ve seemed to irritate women, but I could never understand why. You know, I’ve never done this before, have you?” He held the boot at the ready.

 

She felt her whole body flush, from her dirty bare toes clear up to her brother’s cap. She grabbed the boot and yanked it on herself.

 

Watching, he grinned and answered belatedly, “Oats, please, and stable them inside and curry them, too. Do I pay in advance?” (8)

 

Those sparks really set up some very fine banter, and I enjoyed reading their verbal sword crossing. At Emily and Charles' engagement party, Fannie, surrogate mother and stand-in sister, suspects which way the wind blows for Emily and plays fairy godmother to Emily's Cinderella assisting with her transformation from 'tomboy' to attractive young woman. It begins with a phenomenal pink confection of a dress.

 

Even wrinkled, the dress was stunning, with a dropped neckline bordered by embroidered tea roses, wondrous bouffant elbow-length sleeves and a matching pouff at the spine. When it shifted, it spoke - a sibilant whisper telling of Eastern soirees where such frocks were customary. (92)

 

A dress with a 'sibilant whisper'? I so want a frock that talks when I walk. Emily is irritated when Tom appears not to be listening to its message and appears totally unaffected by her transformation. Or is he? After all, he doesn't take his eyes off her when he steps through the doorway and like a magnet pointing directly to true north, he determinedly makes a beeline for her. But waiting for a compliment on her changed appearance is futile, and the more she waits, the angrier Emily becomes until it spills over during a cotillion-like dance with everyone changing partners and she and Tom finally come face-to-face. It's his "Hiya, tomboy" that sets her off:

 

'You and I will never get along, and you know it perfectly well. You also know that if it weren't for Charles you wouldn't be in this house right now.'

 

'Do you practice being mouthy or does it just come naturally?'

 

'Do you practice insulting women or does it just come naturally?'

 

'Hostesses are supposed to be polite to their guests.'

 

'I am. To my guests.'

 

'You know, Charles and I get along remarkably well. I have a feeling he and I are destined to be friends. If you're going to marry him, don't think we should try to grin and bear each other - for his sake?'

 

'You already grin more than I can bear.' (104)

 

Like the waltz they're dancing in the Walcott's drawing room, they twirl and swirl and step on each other's toes verbally. Emily, complaining that Tom has scuffed Fannie's borrowed shoes, finally gets Tom to acknowledge the dress:

 

He glanced down briefly, then resumed dancing. 'Fannie? So that's where you got the clothes.'

 

'Not that you noticed.'

 

'Did you want me to?'

 

'You're the one who called me a tomboy!'

 

'After you called me shabby. I dress the way I do because it's the most sensible when I work.'

 

'So do I.'

 

Their eyes met and each gave the other a begrudging point.

 

'So, what do you say, should we call a truce? For Charles's sake?'

 

'She shrugged and glanced aside indifferently.' (104)

 

For Emily and Tom, this then is the beginning of easing of some of their initial tension, a newly gained mutual respect which replaces animosity with a sexual tension thick enough to cut with a knife. I enjoyed the way Emily turned the tables on Tom here and made him think twice about dismissing her as a woman simply because she wears britches and is ankle deep in horse dung while she works. Likewise, Emily has to revise her snap judgment of 'shabby Tom' she first met with his sleeves cut off, bulging arm muscles displayed indecently and sporting several days growth of beard, straight off his dirty, tiring, dusty thousand-mile journey. Detente is sealed when he asks her opinion of who has the best horses in the area for his livery and who has the best hay, but when he accompanies Emily on a visit to a local pig farmer whose pregnant sow is in trouble birthing her piglets, both are able to see each other without the veil of prior prejudice for the first time. I learned three things from this scene: pigs like beer (it calms them), a sow in distress and the pig birthing business is pretty disgusting, and Tom and Emily and Charles and Tarsy are all headed for heartache.

 

Tom and Emily do not succumb to their growing attraction immediately. This thing between them is fought and struggled against and denied and questioned until they cannot any longer. There are very real obstacles - Emily's feelings for and engagement to Charles, Tarsy Fields' (Emily's closest friend) involvement and professed love for Tom, Tom and Edwin's competing businesses, the turmoil in Emily emotions as she watches her mother dying - to prevent Emily and Tom from acting on any of their burgeoning feelings for each other. Charles is an honorable man, a good man, a man truly and deeply in love with Emily. Tarsy is Emily's friend, and Tom and Emily have no desire to hurt either of them. But those genuine feelings of love and friendship cannot hold back Tom's admiration for Emily's concern for animals, her love for what she does, her willingness to do whatever is necessary without complaint or missish airs, and her refusal to allow anyone to dismiss her as a local rancher does, as if she were a 'ghost he could see through', simply because she is a female whose opinion on how to save a prize sow or judge superior horseflesh could not possibly be superior to a man's, her perseverance despite the doubt from many that she's capable of doing a job traditionally reserved for men.

 

They listened to the squeak of shifting saddles, the three-time waltz rhythm of cantering hooves, the steady rush and pull of the horses' breath. They felt the east cool their fronts and the west warm their backs and realized they were enjoying each other's presence far more than advisable. . . riding . . . a mere horse's width apart . . . eyes correctly ahead . . . digesting the mellowing turn their relationship had taken in a single day. Something indefinable had happened. Well, perhaps not indefinable - inadmissible, rather - something startling and compelling and very much forbidden. They rode on, each of them battling the urge to turn and study, to confirm with an exchange of glances that the other was feeling it, too - this new confederacy, this inadvisable, insidious fascination. To feel it was one thing; to allow it to show was another. (129)

 

'The heart has its reasons which reason does not know. We feel it in a thousand things.' Emily and Tom know how painful the divide between reconciling what the heart wants and the mind dictates can be to live with. Spencer shows perfectly the yearning, the longing, and the torment of being separated from the one person you need to be with, how impossible it is to simply decide to love someone, or to decide not to love another despite the hopelessness of it.

 

I scarcely know him. But it didn't matter.

 

He's Papa's competition. But noble about it.

 

He's Tarsy's beau. It carried little weight.

 

He's Charles' friend.

 

Ah, that one stopped her every time. (151)

 

I think one of the most emotion-filled moments is when Emily realizes she is, indeed, in love with Tom no matter how much she has fought against it and denied it and run from it. It's a moment in the book full of rich imagery with Tom at his smithing forge, 'the scarlet radiance of the coals' as a backdrop, punctuated by the 'roar' of the air lifting up the chimney, the illusion that Tom's silhouette is expanding, surrounded by a 'vermillion halo' until she sees nothing else, as sparks fly with every 'pang-pang' of his hammer on the anvil, the smell of smoke, 'a singeing, bitter perfume', in the air as Emily finally understands he's not leaving, that she'll see him here dozens of times in the future, but never again in the same way before this day. Even more, this moment is one of mutual recognition, one in which Tom's love for Emily is reaches such clarity and becomes crystallized for him:

 

She glanced up at the horseshoe again and he watched the curve of her throat come into view. He dropped his eyes to the line of her breasts flattened at the tips where her red suspenders crossed them, her thumbs hooked into their brass clasps at the waist of Frankie's britches. He found her as attractive in boy's wear as he did in a mauve gown. He'd never met a more unpretentious woman, not one who shared as many of the same interests as he. Suddenly, he wanted her to see all of his realm, to understand his joy in it, because only another livery owner could appreciate what all this meant. (159)

 

Mirroring the way Tom saw into Emily's soul the day he accompanied her to the pig farm and Cal Lambert's ranch, Emily's realization is set amidst a prosaic, yet poignant for all that, moment and is just as life-changing as he shows her who Tom Jeffcoat really is, what is important to him, the family he misses, the heritage passed from father to son that he's proud of:

 

'The bellows were made in Germany in 1798. They'll last all of my lifetime and longer. The anvil is the one my father learned on, from his father, then taught me on. The one I'll probably teach my sons on.' He gave it an affectionate slap and rubbed his hand over the scarred iron. 'I know every mark on it. When I left Missouri my mother sent me off with four loaves of her homemade bread for the road. Don't get me wrong - I loved it, but eventually I ate them up. This, though . . .' He gazed down at the anvil, his hand lingering upon it with great affection. '. . . the marks from their hammers will never disappear. When I get to missing them it helps to remember that.'

 

It was an odd, passionless moment in which to recognize that she had fallen in love with him, but it happened to Emily in that instant while she met Tom Jeffcoat's eyes, while he let her see the soul inside the body, and admitted how he longed for his family and how he valued his birthright. It struck her with the force of a blow - Pang-pang! - I love him.

 

She turned away, afraid he'd read it in her eyes. The heat of the room pressed hard upon her flesh, joking the heat from within, an awesome heat spawned by the sudden, jolting admission." (159-160)

 

One of the things LaVyrle Spence excels at is giving me a sense of the time period in her novels. In Vows, there is Tarsy Fields' obsession with ladies' fashions of lace and bustles and fashionable millinery of the late 1800s, Fannie's knickerbockers and bicycle, Josephine's adherence with the 'modern' Victorian decorating sentiment - "more was better" - making a large parlor feel claustrophobic with all the draped China silk, cordball fringe, a huge upright piano as centerpiece, various 'fans, framed photographs, a clutter of umbrellas, plaster busts, wicker rockers, cushions, coat racks, China cabinets, scarves, clocks, and gimcracks', etc., etc. Very busy.

 

Then there are the parlor games Fannie instigates at Charles and Emily's engagement party, games that progress from flirty fun and innocent innuendo to a more daring exploration of sexual interest and pseudo-seduction at Tarsy's parties and are the unwitting instrument for Tom and Emily to explore their mutual attraction. Like "Squeak, Piggy, Squeak" which makes Tom aware that his 'fascination' and 'watchfulness' of Emily are sure fire symptoms he is falling in love with her. The way that Emily watches Tarsy rub on Tom's leg as she trides to make Tom laugh when they play "Poor Pussy" and her reluctant acknowledgement of her jealousy for the way Tom kisses Tarsy and rubs her back. "Guessing Blind Man" plants Tom on Emily's lap and under cover of a parlor game gives him permission to touch Emily in a way he's longed to do for weeks and cements in his heart what he feels for Emily:

 

The game gave him license to do what he might never get a chance to do again and he'd do it, by god, with Charles watching, and satisfy his curiosity. Those looking on would see only what they'd been seeing all along - a teasing man having his fun with a woman who could scarcely tolerate him.

 

Still holding her wrist, he explored with his free hand each long, thin finger, each nail clipped veterinarian-short; callouses (surprising) at the base of her palm, then the palm itself, working it over mortar-and-pestle fashion. Sure enough: a scab - undoubtedly caused by her fall from the bicycle. He felt an acute forbidden thrill. (142)

 

Likewise for the shivaree/housewarming party Charles, Tarsy and others organize for Tom's newly finished home with yet another parlor game - a 'Toe Social' - in which the ladies take off shoes and stockings, stand behind a quilt or curtain with skirts raised high and only their bare feet and (shockingly!) ankles visible while the men, one at time, guess who belongs to which feet. If the man guesses correctly, he and the woman spend five minutes alone together in a dark closet. The sexual tension of this scene was pretty much at volcanic eruption level and, of course, leads to Tom and Emily's first kiss.

 

Tom Jeffcoat moved along the line of bare toes slowly, assessingly, coming to a halt before Emily. She squeezed her eyes shut and felt as if her entire body were puffing with each heartbeat. He moved on to the end of the line and she breathed easier. But he was back in a minute, striking panic into her heart. She glanced down. There were the tips of his black boots an inch away from her bare toes.

 

'Emily Walcott,' he said clearly and covered her distinctive longest second toe with the tip of his boot.

 

She closed her eyes and thought, no I cannot do this.

 

'Is it you, Emily?' he asked, and she dropped her skirts as if they were guillotines. (198-199)

 

That kiss. Oh, that kiss in the dark closet. Aspiring romance writers and some experienced ones really need to read Tom and Emily's first kiss to learn how to capture the hunger, the passion, the impatience, and finally the melting acquiescence, the surrendering of lovers to each other - his breath against her cheek, her retreat, his tender persistence, her resistance finally giving way like 'table linen slipping to the floor', the irresistible urge to learn and know the other and become as close as humanly possible for fear the opportunity will never be granted again - to something larger and more powerful than they ever realized.

 

Outside, someone banged on the door, teasing. Emily jumped but Jeffcoat remained unyielding. His hand slid up her calf and came to rest behind her knee. She sat as still as a monument while his other hand searched the dark, found her cheek, then slipped around her nape, pulling, pulling, while she stiffened against it.

 

'I'm scared, too, tomboy, but I mean, by God, to find out. Now come here.' (199-201)

 

A kiss not just with lips and tongues but engaging every part of the body from a roughened calloused hand folded over an elbow and trailing down a smooth arm to an armpit and on down to a breast to an arm coiled lovingly over a shoulder and another around his body, heady and exciting, wet and unrestrained. Absolutely wonderfully delicious!

 

I have to mention Edwin and Josephine and Fannie and how their troubled relationship affects Tom and Emily's relationship as well as Emily and Charles' potential marriage. Edwin, Josephine, and Fannie's story serves as a cautionary tale for Tom and Tarsy or Emily and Charles. Edwin has not been unhappy in his marriage but it has been an alliance remarkable for its lack of warmth and genuine emotion. A stolen kiss between Edwin and Fannie clearly shows the price of sacrifice and denial, the ensuing guilt, the very painful, heartbreaking consequences of trying to do the right thing and acting honorably.

 

'I'd forgotten how it feels. Do you know how long it's been since I've done anything like this?'

 

'Shh. . .nothing about her, not ever. This is dishonorable enough.'

 

He gripped her head, held it as a priest holds a chalice and drank her - Fannie of the bright hair and insatiable spirit and crushed-grass scent. He cherished her - Fannie of the memories and warmth and dew-kissed days of youth. How had he sustained through all these years without her? Why had he ever tried?

 

He lifted his head and delved into her eyes. 'The dishonor was mine in giving you up. What a fool I was.'

 

'We are human, Edwin. What we feel for one another cannot always be held in abeyance. Sometimes, when we are bleak and in need, we may find ourselves seeking one another, as I sought you today. But we will not speak of eventualities, nor will be consign ourselves to deceitful tête-à-têtes. It would only compound our guilt.' Her voice lowered to whisper. 'Now I must go. Please let me.' (176-178)


Fannie's story after Edwin and Josephine marry is no happier than Edwin's who's honored his vows physically if not emotionally, learned to live, if not happily, at least harmoniously and contentedly, with a woman he never loved and married only out of duty and at his parents' urging. Fannie had the illusion of freedom to do what she wanted, to experiment with new and exciting opportunities for women, to have an adventurous life, but she was just as much trapped in her freedom as Edwin was trapped in his marriage because she could not be with the man she loves. Josephine, too, was hurt though she may not have shown it. How awful to live with the knowledge that your husband loves not just another woman, but a much beloved and admired cousin. I could only admire Josephine for loving Edwin in the only way she knew how and for the choice she makes as she comes to terms with her death, a choice that gives Edwin and Fannie a rare second chance. The heart has its reasons. . .

 

When Emily makes her choice between Tom and Charles, it's not an easy one. As the old song says, somebody has done somebody wrong. Love hurts, remember. Charles is hurt, devastated, angry, betrayed by both the woman he loves and the friend Tom had become. Tarsy is hurt, too, though she shows herself to be selfish, cruel, and bitter in a way which Josephine had every right to have felt, but didn't. Her desire to attack Emily in such a personal way, to destroy the essence of Emily was disturbing. Tom and Charles fight it out physically, a well-matched, equally balanced, fair fist fight between a muscly carpenter and an equally muscled blacksmith. But Tarsy's reaction is more viscerally cruel, attacking Emily as a 'flat-chested freak who dresses like a man and smells like horse apples and probably hasn't got the right equipment to make babies anyway. A moron.' Then she calls Emily a 'bitch' and a 'Judas', capping it off with the coup de grâce - 'You may be a virgin, but I'm not! I did it! With your precious Tom Jeffcoat, who wouldn't take no for an answer! Take that to your wedding bed and sleep with it!' Definitely not her finest hour.

 

Emily knows there are consequences to her decision, ones which leave her familiar life in turmoil. Her mother is dead, her father and Fannie are to be married, she and Tom have confronted Charles, she's broken her engagement to Charles, her father is suddenly throwing up barriers to keep Tom and Emily apart, there's at least a year of mourning to be endured before either couple can marry, she's been mocked, jeered, and attached both physically and verbally by her best friend who has gutted her as only another woman can, making her question exactly how much of a friend Tarsy had been to her in the first place - '...how many times had Tarsy secretly laughed behind her back, ridiculed, derided, probably even among their crowd of mutual friends.' Everything is a question mark for Emily at this point.

 

'Perhaps the men's way was more civilized after all. A swift, clean fistfight would have been preferable to this insidious, long-term venom inflicted by Tarsy's words. (...) Instead, she would live for years festering with the knowledge of her own shortcomings as a woman, and of Tom's sexual predilection for another. (334)

 

So Emily saddles a horse and goes riding, images of Tarsy playing kitten and rubbing on Tom's leg, Tom and Tarsy kissing during a forfeit of one of the parlor games, how his hands caressed her back, and can't help wondering how long they were lovers and how often and how she compares to Tarsy and will Tom be disappointed with her after being with Tarsy. Then she comes upon a heard of buffalo in the snow.

 

'Emily rode with her head hanging until her abstraction was interrupted by the sound of wind chimes.

 

Wind chimes?

 

She lifted her head at the same moment Buck stopped moving, and found herself at the edge of an upcountry meadow, and there before her grazed the straggling remnants of a buffalo herd. Few of the great beasts remained, and those that did were considered precious relics of the past. She'd never seen any this close and sat motionless, afraid of scaring them off. Pawing the snow, foraging beneath it, they presented their rumps until one old bull raised his head and assessed her with a wary black eye, warning the others. As one, they poised to run, ugly beasts, humped and hairy, their faces unlovable, their coats matted and tangled. But suddenly they moved in concert, trotting away, setting into motion hundreds of sparkling icicles that hung from their shaggy undersides and tinkled like an orchestra of wind chimes. The sun glanced off them, creating prisms while the sound drifted across the snowy meadow in a sweet glissando.' (337)

 

The unexpected beauty in such an unlikely place lifts her spirits momentarily, and she heads home unsure of what she might face in the future but no longer running away from it either. How powerful it was for Emily to confront the 'relics of [her] past' as she gazes at the herd of buffalo, feeling a sympathy with the powerful, ugly animals whose future appears as uncertain as her own in this moment. There was a newly found maturity, a renewed strength of character, in Emily not present at the beginning of her journey. This scene with the buffalo, the icicles hanging from their fur, sounding like wind chimes as the move away is such an emotional scene in the way that it's a bridge between her past and her future, a connection with the earthy part of her personality, the part that grounds Emily everyday as well as a balm, and the healing of her spirit as well as a desire and decision to move forward.

 

After reading Vows by LaVyrle Spencer, I found myself thinking a lot about this quote: 'The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know. We feel it in a thousand things...' I have never enjoyed love triangles or infidelity in romance novels. In fact, I tend to run in the opposite direction if I know those elements are in a book. Yes, I'm aware these things occur in real life. I just don't particularly want them in my fantasies. It's messy, it's confusing, it's painful, it's . . .well, a little too real. There's always somebody left out in the cold. Like Charles. I truly wish LaVyrle Spencer had written a book for him even as I see and appreciate the symmetry and foreshadowing of Tom's arrival in Sheridan after being jilted and Charles leaving Sheridan at the end. The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know. My experience reading this book echoes in this quote - emotions tugged in one direction while my mind reminded me why I was not supposed to like this book. At all. But my heart. . . Ah, it was telling me something entirely the opposite.

 

 

SPOILER ALERT!

The Edge of Impropriety

The Edge of Impropriety - Pam Rosenthal

The Edge of Impropriety is the second book I've read by Pam Rosenthal though it was the fourth romance Ms. Rosenthal wrote. (Has she written any others since The Edge of Impropriety, I wonder?) I knew it was going to be an interesting reading experience to compare her debut novel, Almost A Gentleman, with one she wrote several years and a couple of books later because that first book, though disappointing in many respects and so satisfyingly edgy in other ways, demonstrated these tantalizing glimmers of brilliance in her prose and an eagerness to take the romance genre to new and exciting places. I have to admit I loved almost everything about this one beginning with a much older than expected hero and heroine (forty-seven and thirty-six years old respectively), the stubborn resiliency of the heroine to live an unapologetic life, the hero's complexity, the way the underlying message here sparked thoughts afterward about issues not just on the 'happy ever after', secondary characters who appear all the more real for their flaws and unsympathetic characteristics, and sex scenes that blistered my fingertips and brought blushes to my cheeks. Or maybe flushes is the better word. Yep, there was that, too.

 

 

Marina Wyatt, Countess of Gorham, is known as 'The Beautiful Bluestocking of Brook Street', an author of Society novels like The Tale of Farringdon and her latest, Parrey: A Gentleman, which, despite sounding like the beginning of too many romance novel clichés, serves more as a jumping off point to getting to know Marina. In the beginning it's through her writer's persona and imagination that Marina's self-discipline, sense of humor, her innate sensuality as natural to her as breathing, her amazing strength of will, and resiliency begins to shine through - the drool that drops onto a page of proofs dealing with a character's lobster salad, a nod to aging eyes in the way she squints to the see the print, her determination to arise early to begin her work despite a late night spent with a 'handsome, shallow, grateful young man' making her feel all of her thirty-six years.


Count the pages instead of the years, she exhorted herself. Divide them into the number of minutes. . . (18)


Marina is a woman of lusty appetites - for food and sex, obviously, which she embraces fully, even as she constantly strives to maintain her independence. It had been, after all, hard-won freedom of sorts and very much worth fighting for and protecting. For all that she has these worthy, admirable and sympathetic characteristics, Marina is also an intriguing blend of cynical and secret romantic - a little like an M&M with a hard candy shell of cynicism wrapped around a soft chocolate center of romantic ideals. After all, a poor Irish girl doesn't get to the point of being a very popular, sought-after (not to mention successful author) Countess without a herculean struggle between there and here. Lady Gorham, the writer, entices her readers with a love story, but Marina 'avoids passion' and eschews all that 'yearning emotional stuff', and never, ever, confuses pleasure with passion.


. . .she took what sustenance she could before plunging into the love story that finished off her book - her readers' moral price of admission to the witty, wealthy, wicked, and highly exclusive world they trusted Lady Gorham to guide them through.

 

A pity, she thought, that she couldn't skip the next few pages of prosy sentimentality - or cut its sweetness by sipping a mug of porter as she worked. (18)


Pleasure sans passion is easily found with all those shallow young men who revel in her voluptuousness and celebrity but pleasure and passion intersect in very interesting ways between Marina and Jasper Hedges. (I love that name, Jasper, despite its unfortunate link to the Twilight series. For me, it sounds exotic and powerful.) I really, really loved that Jasper is much older than most heroes in romances, that he's so very brainy but also socially inept (sounds awfully nerdy, doesn't he?), that he wears spectacles, that he genuinely loves Sydney, his niece, and that he yearns to connect with, forge a real relationship, with Anthony, his son, though the two are like oil and water. Anthony is frivolous, handsome, fashionable, and not one bit interested in antiquities or museums as his "Uncle Jasper" is.


'The old gentleman’s a crab, a curmudgeon. A skinflint, a cranky, crotchety, reclusive eccentric whose only amusements are digging up rusty old Roman coins on the estate and penning tedious monographs. Only comes to town to set the British Museum straight on some fine point pertaining to antiquities.'

 

'He hates gossip, and he’s too high-minded to read anything penned during the last two millennia.'

 

Her mouth twisted. 'No novels, then.'

 

'Never. And as for women, I think he cares only for those carved out of marble.'

 

She had to laugh. 'You make me envision him in rusty breeches and a moldering periwig.'

 

He laughed too. 'Well, he’s not very elegant, with dirt on his shoes and ink stains all over his cuffs. But”—he lifted his chin, to great decorative effect—“ there’s nothing for it. I shall simply have to limit our meetings without severing our ties. And you have helped me, Marina, by sharing my confidences and making sport of him with me . . .' (23-24)


One thing I've learned is that the 'erotic' tag certainly fits Pam Rosenthal's style of 'historical romances.' Sex in the three books I've read thus far has not been dull, boring, or wallpaper-ish. Not even for a minute did I want to skim and skip. Instead physical relationships are boisterous, funny, energetic, messy, smelly, sweaty, angry, sometimes painful, and a bit kinky. Boots are hard to remove, stays get knotted and tangled, arms and legs get in the way, and sometimes it's just damned awkward. What's not to love there? Like the fisting in Almost A Gentleman, or the bit of BDSM and role playing in The Slightest Provocation (as well as one of the most interestingly detailed oral sex scenes I've ever read), or the anal sex in The Edge of Impropriety that very nearly scorched my eyebrows. Frankly, I had a powerful craving for postcoital nicotine or a short little nap. Maybe both. Jasper, thank goodness, has some surprising proclivities.

 

Jasper and Marina's relationship relies heavily on midnight trysts that really don't provide opportunity to learn about each other other than physically. In fact, it's not until the last third of the book that they really begin that process. Though I did enjoy their play time, a little more interaction outside Marina's bedroom would have made this a nearly perfect book. One of the few times they interact socially was such a great scene. Marina and Jasper dance at the Withers-Amory costume ball with Marina in black lace as a Spanish lady (and a bruise on her breast that only the two of them know about) and Jasper as a 'well-dressed Englishman' complete with a slate blue waistcoat.


He bowed to Marina, and she swept down before him in an all-too-quick flash of white skin and black lace. If you didn’t know the almost-faded little bruise was there, you wouldn’t. Good luck, then, that he did know exactly where to look for it.

 

What a lot of business went on before a dance could quite get started. And what a surprise for a reclusive type like himself to find himself enjoying the formalities, the claiming of place and partner within the assembled participants. One didn’t dance in secret, shamed, midnight solitude. One lined up with one’s partner in everyone’s full view, under the bright lights of the chandeliers. One smiled, nodded, gathered one’s energies at one’s center, and waited to be swept into action upon the beat of the music.

 

What a beautiful smile she had.

 

Was he ashamed of their secret midnights? (207)


Their lack of knowledge of each other is one thing that separates them when Gerry Rackham, a truly vile villain who knows of Marina's past and who has been, of course, blackmailing Marina for years, is found suffocated in his rooms from a stopped up chimney. Rackham's little black memorandum book has lots of well-known, well-placed personages in it including not only Marina's name but Jasper's as well. Rackham bought and sold information on everybody much like ravens collect and covet shiny objects, using that information to line his pockets. Or in Marina's case, using her past to bind her to him in the only way he had. Rackham's death is a multi-faceted catalyst - separating Marina and Jasper yet ironically granting her freedom to 'simply live' as she hasn't been able to before.


Perhaps this reeling, buzzing confusion was what freedom actually felt like.

 

Simply. Live. Pull a thread from a carefully woven pattern and the pattern threatened to fray into mystery. Sturdy, everyday words like simply and live began to buzz, shimmer, fragment into multiple meanings.

 

She wanted Jasper to tell her she was beautiful in her new print gown and beautiful without it. And then she wanted him to say . . .

 

But there she was, wanting the impossible again. And the truly awful thing about a little freedom was that suddenly it made you unable to distinguish between what was impossible and what might be possible after all. (259-260)


Rackham's death leads Bow Street to Jasper and Jasper to suspect Marina of betraying him regarding a rare Greek antiquity and an attempted burglary which placed his niece in harm's way. Marina, in turn, is wounded by Jasper's lack of trust and her acknowledgment of this signals clearly he has not fallen in love with her as she has him. The moment of confrontation between them is all the more poignant and heartbreaking for Marina at that point.


She motioned him to sit by her on the sofa. He sat as far away from her as possible, the space between their bodies an impassable gulf.

 

And all the wild little hopes she’d pretended not to be cherishing began to shrivel as though burned by a night of sudden frost.

 

She could read it in his face. Not everyone would, she thought. You had to have an eye for how his jaw trembled when he was angry, the way he tried to keep himself from gnawing at his lip. Not everybody would know how to interpret those signals.

 

Well,” he said, “I haven’t gotten much help from the magistrates about my burglary. But I have found out a few things about a certain extortioner.”

 

Spoken contemptuously, coldly, and distantly. His eyes flickering, hands gripping his knees.

 

She could only be thankful that she hadn’t really allowed herself to hope.

 

She suddenly felt very weary, even cross with herself. How stupid, she thought, to have fallen in love with a man while watching him tie a little girl’s hair ribbon. Or had it been the spread of his shoulders when he’d put his hands in the pockets of his rumpled coat?

 

Thoughts, ideas, flashes of wit, and one need hardly mention the lovemaking. But, yes, it had been the way he’d looked at her, made her feel some very deep sense of herself. Her selves, perhaps—Maria, Marina—she was seized by a vision of a procession, as though on a marble frieze, of the girls and women she’d made of herself as she’d made her way through a complicated, cruel, dangerous, and (for all that) still beautiful world.

The frightening question was whether he could bear to know it as well.

 

The answer didn’t seem likely to be yes.

 

She felt something go hard within her. Felt it, heard it: the dull, hollow echo of a gate slamming shut.

 

Nonsense. She’d heard nothing and she’d say nothing. For what, really, could one say of the foolish fancies she’d been entertaining? See, the fancies were gone already.(260-262)


That he had to ask if she betrayed him sends her defenses back up in full force, shutting off her vulnerability to hurt and returns her to the cynical Marina, Lady Gorham he first met.


And anyway, she should be grateful to him for having taught her to use language more correctly. Always an important thing if you weren’t really a native speaker of the conqueror’s English. Fuck: Well, she’d certainly learned that, in all its varieties.

 

While as for love: Perhaps this experience might help her simulate the emotion more usefully in the future. (262)

 

But even in her darkest, most painful place, she finds mercy and forgiveness for Jasper's mistrust. Past betrayals - hers and his - play such an important function in this conversation. Her father's betrayal of her innocence by trying to sell her to a 'brutal English officer' was her 'bit of the middle of nowhere' that led to 'a thousand somewheres' - a little piece of celebrity as a novelist and a member of society. Jasper's betrayal by his sister-in-law and resultant inability to know and acknowledge Anthony as his son was his 'nowhere' that connected to his 'somewhere', his love for antiquities and his niece. He endured the loss of his son by showering all his pent-up love onto Sydney, his beloved niece, so it was natural that he would be viciously and ruthlessly protecting her innocence.

 

Jasper, too, shows an unstinting compassion toward Rackham when he learns Rackham's motives behind forcing Marina to show up in his stuffy offices every month. Jasper feels a deep sympathy with a man, no matter how vile he may have been, who loved Marina unflinchingly and did whatever he could to ensure she never quite disappeared from his life. Their reactions made me think about compassion, forgiveness, sympathy, pride in a different way. Marina's quest to be a better human being is reflected in the postscript of her letter to Jasper laying out her past brutally and honestly but has nothing to do with her hardships. Instead she challenges him to think of the injustices in the larger world and, in turn, made me wonder about a world where countries plunder other countries and subjugate the people.


In the letter she’d handed him, there’d been an oddly angry postscript. Not about herself, the hard life she’d lived as a girl, the insults to her dignity, the vain, vicious, traitorous father she still seemed to weep over. All that stuff had been bad enough, and made him feel stupid for not understanding who she was and who she’d always been beneath the grace, the wit, and the finery—had let him know how entirely inadequate he’d been to the formidable task of loving her, if it hadn’t been too late for that anyway.

 

The postscript, though, was more formal and abstract: couched as a little lecture to gentlemen like himself, a warning against the dangers of imagining themselves and their nation heir to the glories of long ago and far away. It might make an interesting experiment, she’d written, for such a worthy gentleman to take a closer look at the day-to-day business of keeping order in a troublesome little island just west of a choppy green sea—to forgo the glories of past and future empire and instead to look to today and what empire had cost the men (and particularly the women) who were its victims. (291)


Not many romances can accomplish what The Edge of Impropriety did or evoke all the emotions I felt while reading it. But, after an awful reading slump, I'm more hopeful that there are other writers like Pam Rosenthal who will surprise me with complex, character-driven stories, who deliver hours of reading pleasure in the way she pushes the boundaries of the genre in fascinatingly satisfying ways, who can make me see the world around me in a different way. In the meantime, I have one more unread Pam Rosenthal book in my TBR stack that I can't wait to read.

 

4.5 stars

SPOILER ALERT!

Almost A Gentleman

Almost A Gentleman - Pam Rosenthal

Almost A Gentleman by Pam Rosenthal had elements that should have had me glued to the pages - cross-dressing tortured heroine, a hero who is a charming mix of gentleman in society but a "satyr" in bed, a brief appearance of William Blake, a mystery to ponder, a relationship that delivers steam and heat between hero and heroine in ways most historical romances shy away from, some intriguing, interesting secondary characters including a male prostitute as heroine's past sexual partner, and pretty brilliant writing in parts to boot. But I was not glued. Instead, I struggled and bitched and moaned and struggled some more and put it down and picked it back up determined to finish it. Unfortunately, throughout most of the book all I felt was an alarming detachment from the characters and the story which surprised and disappointed and puzzled me.

 

Phizz Marston has been living life as a gentleman in London society for three years. His nickname - Phizz - was given to him by the dandy set because he's never seen drinking anything other than the very best champagne.

 

It never made him tipsy; he claimed that it ran in his veins. (8)

 

He is fashionable in an understated, elegant 'Beau' Brummell way, he has a "cold, unerring eye for style" be it hatbrims, a bon mot, a young ladies outdated sleeves, or in determining who, as Heidi Klum says, is in and who is out. Phizz sits at the coveted bow window of White's critiquing all the ton as they pass by and can blackball prospective gentlemen from clubs with a well-placed comment on his unfortunate choice of shoe black or his lack of finesse in tying his cravat. He can rescue a wallflower or some unfortunate bumpkinette fresh from the country and render her a success by singling her out for a dance or a bit of conversation. Phizz has power and freedom and enjoys it to the fullest. Phizz is also the woman once known in another life as Phoebe Claringworth, once a wife and mother and now widowed and childless. Only a select few know Phizz and Phoebe are one in the same, but someone outside her circle has discovered the truth and has begun sending her troubling, nasty notes full of venom, hate, and deadly threats.

 

David Arthur Saint George Hervey, Earl of Linseley, is a 40-year old widower come to London to debate and vote on the Enclosure Acts as well as to look for a potential bride to take back with him to Lincolnshire. David is a charming mix of aristocrat and gentleman farmer, one who blushes and stammers a little when under stress but who can, at times, also bluster and breath fire as well as any alpha male in romance, especially sexually. His first marriage to an innkeeper perfectly exemplifies his unconventionality more than anything else David says or does. David and his first wife came together to alleviate loneliness, to scratch an itch, married when she became pregnant, lived apart all their married life, and raised their son to have one foot in his father's aristocratic world and the other in his mother's more common roots. I really loved the way he is written as earthy and passionately dominant and assertive sexually but is gentle, complaisant and yielding to Phizz/Phoebe in most other ways.

 

I loved how Pam Rosenthal mixed up some tropes in Almost A Gentelman. Switching up the dominant/submissive roles between Phizz/Phoebe and David was one element executed very well indeed. Phoebe took on a bit of the "rake" role reserved for males in historical romance with her arrangement with Billy the prostitute while David was the more romantic and idealistic character - sighing over her name, imagining a future of blissful domesticity with his 'dear' and 'darling' Phoebe, comparing her name as musical accompaniment to his fantasies and daydreams. And then reversing the roles again when they come together sexually. That element alone made for a pretty powerful dynamic between them. I thought David's mild reaction to being attracted to a young man was yet another way Pam Rosenthal excelled at crafting an unconventional hero.

 

Their first meeting is at Almack's across a crowded ballroom floor. Phizz has taken a young miss who's wearing last season's sleeves and a silly ruffled dress under his wing and is waltz with her. David, on the sidelines with his friend, is discussing the pitfalls of the marriage mart and bemoaning a certain lack of finesse in his ability to waltz when his eye is caught by a couple waltzing, especially the gentleman leading the young lady.

 

Yes, that's how it should be done, he thought. There was a purity, a concentration to the young man's swift steps, a perfection to the set of his hips and shoulders, joy of movement elevated to art through intense control and mastery.

 

Of course that's how it's done, Linseley thought. It was how all the important things in life were done - from the body's center. It was how you guided a horse over a gate, heaved a forkful of hay onto a wagon, took a woman to bed. This new dance led one's thoughts to lovemaking: no wonder there had been such consternation in fashionable circles when the waltz had been introduced. The couple whirled back into the crowd; losing sight of them, Lord Linseley stared at the space they'd occupied, astonished and rather shaken by the feelings that had seized him. (9-10)

 

David decides he will ask the young lady to dance except he can't actually remember what she looks like. Images of the young man, on the other hand, are clear and powerful. While he searches for the couple to better see the young lady, Phizz and his partner twirl into view again.

 

A quick turn. A flash of exquisitely polished pumps followed by a flutter of gauzy white ruffled skirt. Linseley raised his eyes: the black-clad young man was looking at him over the lady's shoulder. The earl found himself staring back into gray eyes flecked with gold, under straight, rather heavy black brows.

 

Thank God they'd whirled away again. (10)

 

David acknowledges his attraction to the young man, 'a bolt of strange cold lightning' as their eyes met and though he is confused and disoriented by the feelings he's experiencing, he doesn't pound on his chest in alpha outrage. It's a great scene and a wonderfully tension-filled 'first meet' between hero and heroine. Unfortunately, Phizz's masquerade is uncovered by David much too soon to explore David's conflicting attraction to Phizz. It was, for me, a lost opportunity.

 

Speaking of lost opportunities. If I had to settle on one major criticism of Almost A Gentleman it would be that there were many other such lost opportunities presented throughout the book, events and themes bordering on brilliantly subversive but then not fully executed. It felt as though the writer had loaded her gun, aimed straight and true, but then never pulled the trigger. Very anticlimactic. Maybe this is why I found it so hard to finish this book. I would begin to think it was heading in a completely different and unique path only to discover it was devolving into the expected and ordinary. For example, I would have loved that Phizz and David kiss before David discovers 'he' is really a 'she'. In fact, David very easily and very quickly discovers Phizz is really Phoebe, and, for me, his discovery watered the tension factor down from blazing to barely a flicker. David and Phoebe almost immediately realize it's 'love' they feel for each other so conflict based on David and/or Phoebe working through their baggage, pasts, and feelings was never realized. Plus, the only obstacle to Phoebe completely abandoning Phizz forever was based on her inability to have more children and withholding that information from David until late in the book. When he does learn she is infertile, David quickly, much too quickly, bears up and races after her to ensure he loves her, all of her, not just her ability to produce more little Davids and Phoebes. And then, I'll be damned if the epilogue didn't include yet another miraculous child borne from Phoebe's body, the product of their perfect true love. Billy the prostitute and his arrangement with Phoebe, are not fully realized as the powerful message their relationship is - Phoebe's decision to embrace her sexuality as freely as any man. Billy just disappears into the servant ether as a rehabilitated assistant steward-cum-veterinarian to Mr. Goulding once Phoebe and David start having hot monkey sex at his country estate. The mystery of who is sending those nasty notes is put on the back burner while David and Phoebe explore all the positions of the Kama Sutra at David's Lincolnshire estate. When the villain is revealed, there is no retribution. At all. This villain and accomplice really, really deserved retribution.

 

Overall, reading Almost A Gentleman left me feeling frustrated and puzzled. Somewhat similar to the frustration Arthur Dent feels when the Nutrimatic Drinks Dispenser analyzes taste buds, metabolism and taste centers but still delivers a drink that is 'almost but not quite' what he most wants - a good cuppa tea. Almost A Gentleman delivers an 'almost, but not quite' historical romance that could have blazed paths and subverted some tropes in new and fascinating ways but for all those missed opportunities.