Harlequin Historical, $6.50, ISBN 978-0-373-29881-5
Historical Romance, 2016
Bladen Read – don’t laugh, he probably didn’t ask for that name – used to be a soldier, until he refused to participate in the bloody mowdown known as the Peterloo Massacre. Now, stripped of his uniform, jobless and not sure what to do with himself, he hangs around in Yorkshire. There, he meets again the woman who has always captivated him, who is now Mrs Caroline Falkner.
A vicar’s daughter, Caro founded the Haven for Women and Mothers with Children in Need. The locals oppose the place, as they claim its presence promotes bad behavior among women, but because Caro’s BFF is now the wife of the Marquess of Tonbridge, the blue-blooded boss of the neighborhood and he openly endorses the home, they tolerate the presence of the home and its residents. Bladen assumes that Caro founded the place after having experienced herself the hardships of being a widow, but the truth runs deeper than that: Caro’s son was illegitimate, the product of too much wine and too much naïveté. She was alone because her own father disowned her when she was a child, and thus, the home is her own way to help other women who walk in shoes that were once hers. As for herself, she now conducts herself with utmost propriety, so that there will no stigma of her shame or behavior that would taint her son when he one day makes his own way in the world.
Therefore, what Bladen initially assumes to be rude, stand-offish behavior of a woman who refuses to have fun is actually the manifestation of Caro’s complicated inner turmoil. She refuses to drink because of what happened in the past when she became inebriated; she refuses to flirt or to be even seen consorting with bachelors because she doesn’t want anyone to believe that she is bringing shame onto herself and her son. This seems extreme, but considering that she was a sheltered vicar’s daughter, and the one thing she made a mistake cost her everything, I can understand why she ended up swinging to extremes to make up for her perceived transgressions and the shame she would invariably bring onto her son should the truth about his parentage comes out.
Therefore, for the first half or so of More Than a Lover, I have an exquisite, sometimes haunting read in my hands. Caro is the quintessential well-done ice queen, what with her behavior making sense to me and all, and I enjoy the nice contrast between her demeanor and Bladen’s happy go lucky one. He slowly chips away at her armor, she doesn’t make it easy for him by raising another wall where one falls, and the whole thing is just fascinating. The contrast between her frostiness and his more earthy, cheerful façade only underscores the sexual tension between those two, and that brings a whole new level of eroticism in a story where nobody has even kissed or get naked yet.
And then it happens. All of a sudden, and I’m still not convinced that this is done in a smooth transitional manner that feels in character for her, Caro wants Braden to kiss her, and then the magic evaporates completely. This story transforms into a familiar, tired old song and dance where much of the conflict stems from two people happily jump to wrong conclusions without wanting to talk, and a race to become the biggest martyr to suffer in stoic silence ensues.
She would go, oh, she lets him kiss her so now he’d think her a loose woman, oh no, let’s start flailing now. He winks at her – oh my god, she is now officially a slut because men only wink at sluts. She must act cold around him… well, at least until she gets horny and wants a piece of, er, true love, if you know what I mean, because heroines don’t ho, they submit themselves to the physical manifestation of the pure feelings in their hearts. On his part, he’d go, oh, so that’s how she behaves, so she’s just like all the other women who only want him for the pee-pee, so he’d go all huffy around her too. That will make her go, oh, see, she is right, he thinks of her as a loose woman, because that’s how men treat loose women. And on and on they go, until I want to just pull out every strand of hair on both their heads.
Along the way, she won’t tell him, so he won’t tell her, and I want to tell them both to just choke on potatoes. Meanwhile, a brewing mystery provides some rather uninteresting intermission now and then amidst the angst of the century taking place between our hero and the heroine, innocent bystanders get roped into the nonsense, and the kid of hers predictably enough goes MIA like every kid does in this kind of story for an “exciting” climax to force the hero and the heroine to admit that the story is closing down soon, so they really need to get married or the readers will get really angry… sigh.
My disappointment is accentuated by the first half being so good that I thought this story would really go somewhere else. Well, other than downhill into a bog of tedious whiny antics that I have across way too many times from way too many romance novel dummy lead characters before. What a shame. For a while, More Than a Lover was shaping up to be something more. I guess it just wasn’t meant to be.