Harlequin Presents, $9.99, ISBN 978-0-373-43038-3
Contemporary Romance, 2014
Yes, the cover price listing is correct. Just like the previous book in the Fifth Avenue trilogy, Scandalize Me is published in trade paperback format, the better for everyone to lick the face of the guy on the cover. Not that I am recommending that kind of action to anyone – at least smear some chocolate before you lick to make everything taste better. Anyway, yes, the score is correct too. I know, this is a Harlequin Presents, so it’s either I have gone crazy and the #YesAllWomen brigade of heroines will come and beat me senseless soon, or the author is going all out and taking no prisoners here. I’d like to think it’s the latter.
The plot is absolute rubbish though. While this story can stand alone quite well, and it has a decent conclusion to allow readers to feel that they haven’t been left hanging if they don’t want to read the next book, I will need to get into some background details, so bear with me. Anyway, we have three friends that cover all the romance hero tropes between them, so there’s something for everybody. Ten years ago, these three men watched helplessly as a woman linked to all of them in some way, Sarah Michaels, jumped to her death during a Christmas office party. Sarah’s death set in motion a chain of events that was only starting to unravel in the previous book.
In Scandalize Me, we learn that our hero Hunter Talbot Grant III was Sarah’s ex-boyfriend. The “ex” part was debatable at the time of Sarah’s death. Hunter believed that she had betrayed him and therefore was a whore-slut forever – you know, the usual Harlequin Presents stunt – while she was holding on to their relationship. At that fateful Christmas party, he bought a floozy to the party and deliberately proposed to her just to spite Sarah. This was after Sarah tried to talk to him and he brushed her off with all the manly coldness he could muster. When she became pavement pancake, you can imagine how Hunter felt. When more information came to light – in the previous book – and the guys learned that Sarah killed herself after enduring her employer’s sexual advances for so long, Hunter remembered how she tried to talk to him and how he pretty much told her to sod off, and he felt even worse.
So, to drown his guilt ever since, he throws parties in strip clubs and has lots of indiscriminate sex with every willing floozy. If this is how the guilty should live, I tell you, we should be crippled with guilt so that life is one big happy orgy.
Zoe Brook, a PR agent said to be one of the best in the field, knows how Hunter basically ruined his NFL career in his orgy of self-destructive behavior, so she offers her services to him for free. He reluctantly accepts, mostly because he’d like to expand her definition of “free services” if you know what I mean. Zoe has her own reasons for being this generous, however. She knew Sarah… and unfortunately, she also knew first hand what Sarah went through. Now, she wants revenge. She wants to take down the villain, and Hunter is going to be her tool to do this. The man is a tool in every definition of the word, though, so she’d need some… er, polishing up to do before he’s up and ready for service.
When I discover what Zoe has in mind for Hunter in her revenge scheme, I groan because it’s pretty silly. The effort she makes to get Hunter to cooperate seems pretty convoluted, if you ask me, for a plan that is flimsy at best. However, this story has a soap opera feel to it – things feel more campy and even lurid than usual. Dumb plots practically make the soap opera genre, however, so it’s easy for me to adjust my expectations, roll up my eyes just once, and go along with the flow.
What really gets Scandalize Me all fired up and ready to go is the way the author makes Hunter’s incessant sexual harassment the kind of thing that makes my toes curl even as I want to bite down on my knuckles and mumble “That is hot!” in the most unbecoming manner. Forget #YesAllWomen, this is #YES!!!! – All Women. There is something about that guy, from his cheerful blatant and over the top masculinity to the cocksure way he flaunts his desirability, that is gorgeous in the most gloriously politically incorrect manner possible. It helps that his aggressive come-on is, as Zoe correctly points out, a defense mechanism of some sort to keep people from discovering his finer feelings and vulnerabilities, and once he lets Zoe under his skin, he turns into a protective and sensitive lovey-dovey guy who still respects his woman’s space and her right to kick some butt. Hunter calls himself a dumb jock, and in some ways, he is one, but he’s a combination of physical presence and sensitive feelings that can be irresistible.
Zoe is one of those rare heroines that are making their presence felt more in what seems to be the evolving direction of Harlequin Presents to remain relevant to readers of today. I have come across more heroines with sense of humor and some backbone in some of the Harlequin Presents I’ve read, and Zoe is easily the most take-no-prisoners anti-archetype I’ve come across. If I want to throw labels around, I’d say that she is not a Harlequin Presents heroine – she is more at home in a story by Julia James and other authors that don’t mind making their heroines tough, capable, and successful. Zoe does all the heavy emotional work in the denouement here, with Hunter being the support, and she has arguably a stronger and more powerful arc of healing and letting go of the past compared to Hunter. While she is initially taken aback by Hunter’s sexual magnetism, and while Hunter does dominate their bedroom games initially, by the last page, the lady has the big boy eating out of her hands. He’s putty in her hands, and this, people, is what I call the ultimate subversive experience that Harlequin Presents should always be.
Indeed, a lot of the good things about this story are unapologetic subversion of Harlequin Presents tropes. Zoe is allowed to have a spine and be good at her job, for example, and Hunter here is more of a catalyst for her coming to terms with her past and finding the courage to stand up to her tormentor. He doesn’t rescue her – I’d argue that their relationship is more of an equal playing field than the initial sexual dynamic would suggest. Also, when Hunter discovers the real reason Zoe approaches him after they’ve had sex, he doesn’t go, “Whore!” like most Harlequin Presents hero would. There are more, but I’d just stop here in case I spoil the fun for other readers out there.
Of course, Scandalize Me being an uncharacteristically un-Harlequin Presents offering may not be a good thing for readers who enjoy the more familiar trope of alpha male and the submissive ingenue. That’s not a bad thing, as it’s not like there is a shortage of more conventional Harlequin Presents hitting the shelves every month. Readers who want something different and are open to overlooking the “Harlequin Presents” tag on the cover, however, may like this one as much as I did. I don’t know, but I hope so. Just don’t mind the plot. It’s dumb, but hey, everything else is sexy and fun and YES!!!! – All Women.