As noted before, I am a big Meredith Duran fan. So I had a delightful surprise last week when I chanced on a Facebook post that informed me she published not one, but two more books this summer!
I have just finished the first one, and I am here to tell you about it.
Non-spoiler version: I finished the last page and exclaimed, “Cute! What a cute story!” This was unreserved admiration. I liked this one much better than her last two. I give it five stars.
Once again, I will make the usual caveats that I am not Duran’s target demographic (i.e., I am uninterested in heterosexual sex and in depictions of a strapping alpha male to sweep me off my feet, take charge, and ravish me; I am only interested in Duran’s scintillating characters and storytelling). So I will temper my quibbles over how this Hero (Christian Palmer) was cast out of the exact same mold as every other one she’s written — 100% in physical form, 90% in character. (The only one who did not meet every particular of the Brooding, Angsty Hero mold was Sanburne in Bound By Your Touch, as he had angst but channeled it into a sardonic, devil-may-care persona that was the tiniest bit different from the rest. He wanted to have fun, I think. The others really don’t. This is a sad flaw.)
Lilah, though! Lilah was fantastic. I loved her from her introduction as Lily: a young thief from Whitechapel, devoted to her sister, desperate to get back to her, ordered by her ruthless uncle to break her own shoulder to escape the literal tight space she’s in. Brilliant! (But alas, the sister’s dead and the uncle lied about that to motivate her to extreme measures.)
And then we jump ahead four years, see the lengths she’s gone to remake herself as an English (not Irish) lady who’s never set foot in Whitechapel, working as a hostess at an auction house.
There’s a third main character to this story, besides our Hero and Heroine: an Ice Queen, Catherine Everleigh, who has no time or charm for any man. She loves art. Very well.
The Hero is a more literal hero too, as he led an unlikely but ultimately successful charge in battle, and poems about him have regaled the nation. Unfortunately, his bloody success incurred the wrath of a rogue Russian (those Russians are always convenient for avoiding any awkward racism when it comes to portraying the villain), who briefly captures Christian for the purpose of taunting him with promises to cut down his family one by one. And he gives him a pretty little facial scar to remember him by. Very sweet.
Now there’s another prominent character — a major minor character, I’d say — Lilah’s ruthless uncle, Nick O’Shea, Saint Nicholas of the criminal London underworld. At first he seems a villain, as the one who put Lilah and her sister to work as child thieves, and as he threatens to out Lilah — as an Irish woman, and from Whitechapel, not to mention a well-practiced pickpocket — to her employers, thus undoing everything she’s striven for. But though that moment comes to pass, he’s never shown doing anything truly despicable. In fact, he regularly rounds up the urchin children to send them to school!
And it’s clear by the end that he’s on the road to redemption (though I am still wondering about the observations of him upping his style game and changing out his bodyguards), so I was relieved and not entirely surprised by Lilah’s declaration to Christian that Nick would always be her family (I’m a big fan of morally gray relatives who are still your family). I was actually more invested in that outcome than hers with Christian (which, of course, was always a given). And I was really irked by Christian’s Alpha Male mode when he got all snarly about how she belongs to him now and not her uncle (who, admittedly, blackmailed her into resuming her criminal ways, just this last time!).
This line, when Christian’s talking to Nick, encapsulates the Romance Hero trope that most bores and irritates me:
“Mine.” The word ripped from Christian. “Do you understand? Yours no longer.”
Please, get over yourself. You can’t come between her and family, not without her permission. Go jump in a lake.
On that note, I was amused that he and Nick started brawling in a closet, though it was terribly inconvenient for Lilah and ended with Nick outing her (again, as Irish and from a poor neighborhood) to her employer. I was pretty disgusted with Christian’s lack of self-restraint — he didn’t even throw the first punch for a good reason (Nick just suggested that Lilah had poor taste in lifting her skirts for him, which is an incredibly mild insult).
Here are some bits I liked, starting with their first real sexy scene:
“Tell me to take you.”
Take me. The words rang so clearly in her head that they penetrated her fever. She pushed away from him.
“Stop!” She scrambled to her feet, knocking her skirts down. “Stop! It’s my choice, you said.”
“Yes.” He loosed a long, hard breath. …
She stepped backward, away from that thought. Away from him. Away from her own stupidity.
Turning on her heel, she left before her mind could change.
Woohoo! (Yes, I’m a bad romance novel reader; I root for the woman’s independence over the couple getting it on.) Seriously, I found this exchange tremendously reassuring after my unsettling experience with Duran’s last book.
More moments I liked:
- The set-up for their first time in bed — there’s a really nice moment when they’re undressing, and not in a hurry, but talking seriously about traumatic experiences, and she ends up leaning against him for a few moments. It really drove home the intimacy of it, and that’s what I’m all about.
- When he’s literally millimeters away from fucking her for the first time, and she still won’t tell him her true name. That was actually hugely important to me, and I like both Lilah and the book more for it.
- When Christian became engaged to some OTHER WOMAN and Lilah had no idea that was coming, she still resolved within the hour to write them both notes of congratulations. And she did. Way to keep your dignity!
- The delightful, suspenseful climax when Lilah and Catherine are captured by the mad Russian, who hits and threatens them, and Lilah was able to use her knife only with the price of spilling a lot of blood.
- THE WOMEN SAVE THEMSELVES. I will never stop cheering this. And not only do they save themselves — they end up in a pub, drinking ale and eating fried oysters while waiting for the men to return. A+, jolly good work, just marvelous.
- As a sub-note for how they saved themselves — I really loved Catherine pushing Lilah into the tunnel, hitting her back with her fist to make her go. I wanted more of this! Catherine doesn’t need to be malicious, but she’s hard and remorseless and will do what needs to get done. (So yes, in theory she’s a good match for Nick, but the social barriers are unrealistic outside of romance-novel land.)
In the end, I only had a few quibbles with this book, things I didn’t entirely buy, and they both related to Catherine’s characterization.
- Catherine failing to dismiss Lilah when Nick revealed her past and true name. The women had not established their confidence nearly long enough for Catherine to forgive being deceived in so major a way. (Really, her behavior post-sickness did not line up with her behavior in the first part of the book.) She may not have done it in anger — if anything, she’d be matter-of-fact, maybe a tiny bit regretful about how she simply can’t permit that kind of deception to go forward as a precedent in her business. But no, all of a sudden she’s sentimental and deeply concerned about the alternate fate Lilah faced once and now.
- Catherine apparently considering Nick as a marriage prospect at the end of the book??? She may not care for “polite society’s” opinions, but surely she knows she’ll take a real business hit if she marries an Irishman from Whitechapel with a notorious criminal background! The aristocracy are not going to patronize that auction house. (I am about to start Luck be a Lady and we’ll see if that addresses it further, or if Catherine was just really tipsy for that conversation.)
One more funny thing from the end: I was going to laugh and laugh if Christian’s declaration of love was ultimately, “I want to protect you like a tree I saw once ,” but fortunately it went deeper and then turned around, to “You protect me.” Very, very nice. Well done, Miss Duran. Can’t wait to start the next.