Leigh Dormet is 25, a secretary/assistant to the CEO and owner of Meredith's (some type of unspecified factory), from a large family (3 younger sisters and a brother) of red heads (except for younger sister, Stella. More on Stella in a bit), engaged to love of her life Bruce Jermyn ("dear, big, clumsy Bruce" who everyone except Leigh sees as a man who needs to "lean on" someone stronger than he is). Bruce popped the question at Ricki's diner in front of the tea urn whereupon Ricki decided to gift the couple with "Ernie" (the tea urn) when they marry. She is the perfect secretary: efficient, calm, cool, impersonal. So much so that to her boss she blends right in with the filing cabinets, desks, and typewriters. I kind of like that Nerina Hilliard was flipping the boss-secretary trope so popular with those early Harlequins by having neither one of these characters think "romantically" of the other at all. In fact, Ruiz notes that Leigh is "no believer in the secretary-boss romance." *wink wink*
Ruiz Diego Palea de Aldoret is 34, said CEO and owner of Meredith's of the unspecified factory, has been estranged from his only family, an elderly but forceful grandfather, in Mexico for 10 years. As a young man he met and decided to marry the love of his life, Mercedes Lastro, "a dancer in a less than third rate cabaret", but grandfather would not hear of a dancer becoming mistress of Carastrona and mother of any future Aldorets so he gave Ruiz an ultimatum: Forfeit the tart or your heritage. He chose Mercedes.
Unfortunately, she valued Ruiz's money and position more than she valued him because when she found out he'd been disinherited, Mercedes danced right out of Ruiz's life while he's out buying flowers for their wedding. Mercedes did a reverse Harlequin equivalent of "Honey, I'm going out to get cigarettes" but then is never heard from again, leaving poor Ruiz heartbroken, wiser, and more cynical. So Ruiz leaves Mexico and travels to his mother's family in England where he inherits Meredith's. To Leigh, Ruiz is not romantic despite his Latin good looks. In fact, she declares there's "more romance in the leg of a chair" than in Ruiz's whole body. Why, he "wouldn't know how to make love to a girl if he tried", and, in fact, to him, women are "useful appendages for holding pencils and such like, to take down letters and attend to other clerical duties of the firm." He is most likely a "woman-hater" and a "walking iceberg." I'm not sure he's a woman-hater, but he definitely had no desire to marry especially after the fiasco with Mercedes.
And then two things happen to shake up the status quo: Stella, Leigh's beautiful younger sister by one year, with her glossy raven hair (the only one in this family of redheads), the acknowledged "beauty of the family" and film star extraordinaire comes home to Korveston Heights for a visit. Stella is pretty close to being a sociopath in my opinion. She cares for no one except herself, she uses her beauty to charm others into doing what she wants them to do, admits to herself that she has no "feelings" for her family (or anyone, really) except for the way they stroke her vanity and ego. Only two characters see Stella for what and who she really is: Kerry, Leigh's best friend, and the large white family dog named Leigh affectionately describes as the League of Nations but answering to "Snooks." Stella seems to have no conscience at all and has a history of taking the things Leigh loves for her own merely to ruin and destroy them once her interest in them has waned. Like the teddy bear (found later with eyes ripped out and stuffing erupting from its belly) or Leigh's beloved doll (minus the head, it's china body smashed). So what does Leigh have now that Stella wants? Bruce, the fiancé. Dear, big, clumsy Bruce. And like Lola, whatever Stella wants, Stella gets.
So Stella throws out her lures, and Bruce is caught in her net very easily. A more appropriate marine/fishing analogy would be Stella the Shark gobbles up Bruce the chum in about five minutes flat. I really admired Leigh for her self-sacrificial nature, but giving up Bruce and breaking her engagement so that her "beloved" sister would be happy bordered on martyrdom, I think. The only thing I enjoyed about this is that I knew Bruce was going to try to stick like glue to Stella so that seemed just desserts for her treachery and betrayal.
The other event is a letter Ruiz receives from his grandfather's attorney, advising him of his grandfather's death and that he has inherited Carastrano, the family estate in Mexico, after all. With one proviso: Ruiz must marry within three months or lose it all. Again. Fate can be so cruel in these Harlequins at times. But Ruiz discovers a loophole. He must marry but nothing in the will says he must stay married. So he concocts a business proposition type of proposal and immediately thinks of Leigh as fitting his requirements of a temporary wife to a T, "cool, so composed she sometimes hardly seemed human."
"...a girl who would be willing to enter into such a cold-blooded arrangement, a girl who was enough like him to have no use or place in her life for romance and who could be counted on to keep sentimentality out of the arrangement for the time they would have to spend together in Mexico." (27)
Ruiz calls her into his office and puts the proposition to her. I found this passage pretty funny as Leigh has no idea the reason he buzzes for her to come into his office. She brings her steno pad and pencils and "automatically took down what he said without actually realizing what it was." Of course, she turns him down, explaining that she's already engaged which floors Ruiz as he was sure she not capable of feeling the finer emotions like love and passion. But after she catches Stella and Bruce together, Ruiz's proposal is an answer to her prayer, a way to let Bruce go so that Stella will not feel guilty. (Oh woman, please! Stella wouldn't know what guilt was if it bit her on her shapely and firm little rump!) So Leigh breaks with Bruce, accepts Ruiz's proposal except she asks him to make it look like a "love match", which is another kind of authorial flip on the boss-secretary romance, with the truth of their union known only to them. Before long, however, their "secret" is not really a secret after all - Leigh ends up spilling the beans to both Kerry and Bruce. Plus, even Tess, Leigh's youngest sister, smells a rat too. Stella, of course, didn't just fall off the turnip truck so her radar is picking up blips like crazy.
I really liked Dark Star quite a lot. I liked that the romance between Leigh and Ruiz was slow and steady, not insta-lust. They really got to know the people behind their respective professional masks and learned they had more in common that at first thought. As they get to know each other, their mutual attraction grows naturally from that point so it felt realistic and one of a longer-lasting nature.
There were parts of Dark Star that reminded me of a few Betty Neels' books. The large rambunctious, loving family (except for Stella), the dog Snooks and the way he exuberantly greets the Dermot family members (except for Stella), Flix the cat and her ginger and white kittens in the kitchen (who wisely ignores Stella), and the village/suburb of Korveston Heights across the river from the more modern "semi-metropolis" Korveston. Nerina Hilliard juxtaposes the sleepy old market town with its more modern counterpart of tall buildings and bustling businesses.
The old town still existed, on the other side of the river - which was still as sleepy and meandering as it had always been - but facing it, with the old and new again in evidence, this time in the shape of the old wooden bridge and the modern steel structure, were the tall buildings of the new town centre, with its luxury flats as well as its office buildings, it's smart shops and large suburbs, with their neat little streets of houses, but on the other side of the river, further out, were the older suburbs, still retaining their rural, tranquil air. Some of them were even like detached, independent little villages, even to the traditional village gossip.
Korveston Heights was one of the latter, regarding modern Korveston somewhat in the light of a precocious child that had sprung up while the mother's back was turned. It was here, on top of one of the highest hills, known throughout the whole of the Heights, that the Dermot house, with is quaint name of Jingletop, was built. It was a friendly house, constructed of weathered grey stone and rambling all over the hill top, as if it had grown rather than been planned, standing in its own somewhat overgrown grounds. (65)
Plus, Ruiz gives Leigh a sapphire engagement ring worthy of any Rich Dutch Doctor engagement ring in a Betty Neels book. The only thing lacking were a few faithful family retainers for the Dermots and a WI meeting at the vicar's house. Since I'm a HUGE Neels fan, this made my romance reader's heart feel like it was coming home.
The foreshadowing of the upheaval Leigh was to face with Bruce and Stella's love affair, when she discovers her sister in her fiancée's arms in a very "compromising" position and the trouble Ruiz and Leigh have to face as a couple before getting to the "and they live happily ever after", though not subtle, was very effective at adding quite a bit of tension and conflict. During Stella's two-week visit, Leigh began to have feelings that something was off between her and Bruce, that something was just not quite right. Until THAT DAY. Dun Dun Duuun!
Then everything changed...everything became different."
The house seemed quiet and still when she arrived home. Julie and her mother had intended to go to a film during the afternoon and had apparently not yet returned. The twins were remaining a little late at school practising for some parade. By the quietness, Stella was also out or she was lying down, or perhaps reading.
Leigh opened the lounge door.(41)
Now, of course, you know what she saw. But still, my heart was sad for Leigh. Sad, that is until she decided she would be magnanimous and self-sacrificing, giving up her true love/teddy bear/favorite doll so that Stella could find happiness. As I said, these are not exactly subtle hints of an upcoming time of turmoil (I experienced a similar reaction to the very circuitous path the damning letter in The Scars Shall Fade took to land in the hands of Andrew Dalwin) but still effective in ratcheting up the tension.
Or like the fortune teller at Teotihuacan Leigh visits while on her honeymoon who tells her ominously that "sadness mists the water", "...there is a dark star in your life, my child, and not until it has set can the sun rise and lasting happiness take its place." Dark star, Stella. Stella, dark star. Well, you see what I mean.
I chuckled a bit at the two conversations Ruiz overhears about himself at Ricki's diner and his consternation at the way Leigh has sold him short. Leigh details quite elaborately how Ruiz does not fit her ideal of a romantic hero, and he is forced to sit and listen to all his deficiencies in the sexy boss department. I laughed a bit reading about the "hooter" that sounds off to signal lunch and quitting time at Merediths. I really loved that both Ruiz and Leigh don't allow Stella's poison to separate them. In fact, they kind of double team her manipulations and schemes. Leigh finally sees Stella clearly and in time to decide to fight for the man she loves. Of course, Ruiz comes to the same conclusion at just about the same time and throws that hussy right out on her keister PDQ when he's presented with proof that she is out to sabotage his relationship with the woman he loves.
I enjoyed Dark Star tremendously. It's a charming book with a fair amount of angst, surprising depth of the characterization (despite the one-dimensional quality of evil other woman, Stella) of the main characters in such a short book, and a really sweet romance. I'm not sure why I had only ever read The Scars Shall Fade by Nerina Hilliard, but I am definitely going to keep my eyes open for used copies of the scant half dozen or so of her other Harlequins that I haven't read.