Pocket, $5.99, ISBN 978-1-4767-4135-2
Historical Romance, 2014
Fool Me Twice by Meredith Duran is like a well-constructed garment. It looks good, and feels good too, but there is something about it that is missing. That something that makes a difference between a Christian Dior and a Christian Dior that is sold in the streets of Shanghai for $50 – that something is missing.
Olivia Holladay is a lady who is down on her luck. Wanting to throw a villain off her back, preferably permanently, she sneaks into the house of the reclusive Alastair de Grey, the Duke of Marwick, in hopes of locating some documents that she can use to blackmail her way out of trouble. Now, she starts out determined to do what it takes to survive, but the moment she looks at the butler and realizes that he’d be fired for any nonsense she causes in the house, she’s like, “Oh no, I can’t get hired as a housekeeper, even if that would put me in a great position to snoop around, because that would be bad, and I’m not really a bad person!” Olivia’s like this pretty much from the start, which means she’s not the sneaky and pragmatic darling I’m hoping she’d be, but rather, a victim of circumstances who refuses to do anything bad even if the world against her. Maybe she wants a medal, or maybe she just wants to be loved by me. Either way, it’s going to be a long day if she keeps the attitude up.
Alastair used to be the hotshot of the year, having political power to the wazoo. Women want him, men want to be him – that is, until his wife died and he turns out to be the last to know. Yes, the dead woman boinked everyone that is worth boinking, and Alastair was like, oh no, I have to get drunk and hide myself in my room now, because that’s what all manly brooding heroes do these days. Naturally, the spunky housekeeper refuses to let him mope and scolds her way into his room. In return, he looms and scowls his way into her quivering bloomers, and it’s happy love all around the mansion. But her past would catch up with her soon enough. Would he be sent into another downward spiral of drinking and brooding should he discover that she has her own motives for getting hired onto, er, into his staff?
On paper, this is another story of a wounded hero who is cajoled and nagged out of his funk by a heroine who is naturally attuned to his inner sensitivity and sees at once that, underneath the beard and hair that manage to never become tangled or smelly despite him spending all his time drinking and never washing, he is a hot guy worth giving some sexual healing to. In return. he would flex those biceps and muscles – that manage to stay rock hard despite his enforced period of consuming nothing but alcohol – and save her from the wicked men that want a piece of her. She tells him to stop running away, he shows her the pleasures of boinking all day. The author knows her characters as well as the trick of the trade – her characters are more self aware than most and they don’t do stupid things.
Only, there is something about the entire story that feels artificial to me. Oh, I know, this is fiction, so by right everything about it is fake. The thing is, some stories flow so well that I get into it without thinking, “Oh, right… fiction.” Here, however, I keep being reminded that the whole thing is fake. All this is because of many small things that add up. The heroine’s motivations, for example, feel contrived. She needs to lay low, she wants to hide, she wants to stop running away – okay, fine, but despite the apparent desperation of her situation, Olivia never stops to think that, perhaps, she should be keeping a low profile. Instead, she thinks nothing about nagging and berating her employer – he’s a Duke, she’s only the housekeeper, remember – as if such behavior won’t put her on her employer’s radar. She’s supposed to furtively sneak around to look for those documents, but she spends most of her time antagonizing her boss and making herself the center of attention of the rest of the staff. So, what does Olivia actually want? Does she really want those documents or is she just content playing housekeeper in a fanfiction version of Downton Abbey?
The heroine’s back story, therefore, feels like just a set up to get her to strut around in a housekeeper uniform. She doesn’t seem particularly worried about her life – she seems more intent on playing the Sexy Nagging Abby to Alastair’s Broody Sexy Old Me.
Once these two sink into their designated roles in this story, they behave pretty sensibly for the most part – if I overlook Olivia’s bewildering squeamishness when it comes to doing anything bad, considering she’s someone who is supposed to have done a few tricks before in the past – but their back story up to that point feel tacked on. As a result, the story doesn’t flow naturally, but rather, it stomps awkwardly to the last page. I get this feeling that the author spends a lot of care ensuring that her characters avoid falling into common stupid behavior traps that catch other characters in similar stories in the past, but she overlooks setting a believable foundation for the story to take place in.
Anyway, there is nothing particularly bad about Fool Me Twice, but at the same time, I can’t get over how artificial the whole set-up feels to me.