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.