A Willful Woman…

Thoughts about books from a romance addict.

TBR Challenge: The Passionate One by Connie Brockway

CW for book: a near rape, and maybe a whiff of homophobia.

 

The theme: Family Ties

Why this one: It’s the start of a family series, and coincidentally, turned out to have some deeply messed up family dynamics.

This had its share of problems, but still hit the spot. It’s kind of old skool, with a tortured hero and a brave heroine to rescue him with love, and it does those well-worn roles very nicely.

Ash Merrick is the oldest son of a despicable English lord, who won a Scottish castle by betraying his wife’s people. Ash loathes dear old dad, but is forced to participate in his father’s nasty schemes, while trying to earn enough to ransom his younger brother from a French prison. The current scheme is to bring home his father’s ward, Rhiannon Russell.

After the trauma of losing all her relatives at Culloden, and being homeless for a time, Rhiannon has been living very comfortably with English relatives who adore her, and is happily engaged. The one tiny flaw in her cozy life is the constant need she feels to be grateful for everything she’s been given, and not to make waves. She was even chosen by her fiance, Phillip, for these exact attributes. But the arrival of the powerfully attractive Ash throws her for a loop.

Ash is also drawn to Rhiannon, and her engagement is the least of his worries. He can’t possibly marry, he’s a total mess of a human being, he’s pretty sure his father plans to make Rhiannon his fourth wife — and he’s also increasingly sure that someone is trying to murder her.

The story kind of goes off the rails here. Ash convinces himself that Phillip is gay — whether this is true or not is never stated, though you could make a case that Phillip is enamoured of Ash himself — and is the person trying to kill Rhiannon, so she can’t expose him after they’re married. So he carries her off to his father’s castle against her will, while caught between trying to make her think the worst of him, for her own sake, and being devastated when she does.

Despite the vagaries of the plot, the mystery element is well done, and there’s some very effective sequel baiting for the rest of the series. But the romance is the best part. Ash is a mix of two favorite hero archetypes, the utterly competent and the savagely besotted. He can half-kill himself with drink while still being entirely effective at espionage or combat, but here he is after their first kiss:

She turned away, gathering her skirts and bolting into the too bright light. And so she did not see Ash Merrick’s gaze follow her, or see him take his hands from behind his back and turn them over. And she did not see the bloody hands that had been torn strangling the thorny vines behind her so he could keep from crushing her to him.

Siiiiiiiigh…

Rhiannon isn’t quite as compelling, but she has a decent arc of reclaiming boldness and forthrightness along with her Scottish heritage. And Brockway writes lovely sex scenes of the all-too-rare “manages not to be very graphic while also avoiding gawdawful old skool words like ‘manroot'” variety.

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The Chocolate Heart by Laura Florand

(reviewed from an e-arc provided by NetGalley. A long time ago. Better late than never!)

If you’ve read other books in the “Amour et Chocolat” series, this is in some ways a familiar dance: an American heiress in Paris, and the French patissier who woos her with unbelievable desserts. But there’s a bit of a twist here: Summer Corey’s childhood love for both Paris and desserts have been twisted into hate. (Rather than Florand’s usual fairy tale source, this story draws on Greek mythology, with Paris as Summer’s Hades.)

Summer and Luc Leroi basically fall in love at first sight, each seeing warmth and comfort in the other. But their public images and private pasts work against them, and they constantly misunderstand each other. Both were deprived of love as children, but while Luc aims for constant perfection, Summer wears her spoiled bad girl rep as a shield. (Come to think of it, they are interesting representatives of two classic aspects of a dysfunctional family: “The Hero” and “The Scapegoat.”) Every time Luc unwittingly hurts her, she tries even harder to live down to his expectations.

As you might expect from the inspiration, this is dark in tone — not because anything overtly awful happens, though Summer has had more ugly experiences than the world would guess, but because both characters have so much pain in their lives. The story does a beautiful job of showing how two people who seem to have it all can still be so lost and justifiably unhappy. They’re perfect for each other because at heart they have the same need: to give love to someone who needs them and would never let them go.

There was a bit too much repetition of phrases, but the prose is gorgeous. I love the way Florand extends the metaphor beyond its original inspiration:

“That’s what makes it so incredible. What you do. You’re just a man. A human mortal man. And you do–what you do.”

There was a long silence. “Merci, soleil“, he said softly. “After all those people who call me a god, I never realized you could give me a promotion.”

I also liked the realism in the “baby epilogue.” Neither character is completely fixed by true love, and their happy ending requires commitment and care. (There’s also a sequel, Shadowed Heart: A Luc and Summer Novel, which expands on this.)

You don’t have to have read any of the previous books to enjoy this one, although several characters do recur. Just open your heart to a prickly couple who need love, and some astonishing desserts that need to be eaten.

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