1 aristocratic female, used once and discarded
1 scientifically-minded, commitment-phobic male
1 heartless rake
1 doting stepmama
1 doting father, adorably clueless
1 daunting, autocratic father
1 rival for heroine’s affections in the form of a tall, dark and handsome colonel
1 secret baby
2 tablespoons matchmaking efforts
1-1/2 cups unlikely coincidence
1 large stick romantic tension
1 cup witty banter
3 gallons guilt and self-recrimination
2 cups unlikely ending
1 giant red bow, velvet or satin preferred
1. Pre-prep: Take aristocratic female and combine with heartless rake, then lightly kill rake. Incubate secret baby for nine months, then remove from female and (via doting stepmama) spirit away to the North for later use. Insert in baby’s place 3 gallons guilt and self-recrimination; occasionally add presence of doting father to bring guilt to a gentle simmer. Let heroine stew for several years.
2. Take autocratic hero’s father and combine with matchmaking efforts. Send hero to ramshackle estate.
3. Bring hero into heroine’s presence and agitate gently. Add witty banter as necessary.
4. Beat hero and heroine with romantic tension until well-muddled. Add a good dash of rival to speed up the process.
5. Combine hero and heroine in laundry room.
6. Throw in unlikely coincidence into the mix and stir at high speed. Unlikely coincidence will bring conflict to a brisk boil and make the reviewer go “Dammit, I HATE it when I’m right about these sorts of deathly predictable things.”
7. Remove cluelessness from father. Briefly increase guilt on heroine’s part, then drain away and replace with now no-longer-very-secret child. Unite hero, heroine and child.
8. Douse mixture liberally with unlikely ending; allow to soak for two minutes and pour into a bowl. Cover bowl and tie everything together neatly with giant red bow.
Loretta Chase once wrote in Lord of Scoundrels: “In my dictionary, romance is not maudlin, treacly sentiment. It is a curry, spiced with excitement and humor and a healthy dollop of cynicism.”
As far as definitions go for romance, that’s an excellent one, and I’d say Loretta Chase herself has been one of the best at writing novels that live up to that adage. In fact, there are only two books of hers that aren’t on my keeper shelf: the alternately brilliant and atrocious The Last Hellion (alas, the atrocious bits outweighed the brilliance), and Not Quite a Lady.
So, not that I want to get inappropriately personal or anything, but: Loretta. Dude. What happened?
Lookit, this book not only features a secret baby, but a secret baby that’s reunited with the heroine by a string of highly unlikely circumstances, AND it features an ending that smooths over the difficulties and minimizes the impact of what happened. I’m not talking about the social consequences—though that was handled in a rather distressingly facile manner as well—but the emotional impact on the family. From the father (who’s been lied to for over ten years not just by his beloved daughter, but by his wife), to the child himself—come on, the boy’s concept of who he was and where he came from has proven to be a complete and utter lie—the book dealt with all that juicy conflict in the space of a couple dozen pages. Double you tee eff, mate?
Let’s face it, the secret baby device is pretty damn hackneyed, even when done well—and I speak this as somebody who’s actually enjoyed secret baby books in the past, despite my tendency to treat it like a piñata—so why exacerbate it by making everything so pat? So easy? So—dare I say it—treacly?
It’s not as if I’m especially bothered by predictability or spoilers; in fact, I’m the sort of sick freak who’ll occasionally sneak a peek at the ending of a book and continue happily reading. But once the secret baby was introduced, I had a sinking feeling in my stomach that the kid was going to show up later in the book, probably as a plot device to allow things to come to a head.
I didn’t especially enjoy being proven right on that score.
I’m not saying the heroine got off scot-free, or that the father didn’t display distress at being lied to. It’s just that the consequences weren’t enough, especially given the fantastic job Chase had done building the father’s character up and his connection with Charlotte—and really, the father, together with the villain were my two favorite characters in the book. Charlotte and Darius pretty much walked out of Casting Central in this one; in fact, I kept thinking of Charlotte as Whatsername from the moment I set the book down until I looked it up just a few minutes ago. They’re decent characters as far as they go, but they didn’t do much to make themselves memorable, and Charlotte, frankly, exasperated me when she started fucking Darius without agonizing over the consequences because GOOD GOD, WOMAN, HOW DID YOU THINK YOU GOT PREGNANT THE FIRST TIME? BY EATING TOO MUCH STRAWBERRY TRIFLE?
I also didn’t especially like the way the two of them fell in love so fast and so hard, given how the two of them are set up as these cautious characters who are all wary of love and marriage. The two of them really don’t get to interact all that much before they’re all goo-goo eyed (and loined) over each other. This aspect of the book, as with so many other aspects, felt rather slapdash and rushed. Not to say that there aren’t well-written whirlwind romances, some of them even featuring rather cynical characters, but I didn’t feel the spark in quite the same way I did with, say, Jessica and Sebastian in Lord of Scoundrels, or Daphne and Rupert in Mr. Impossible.
The rest of the book is passably well-written, because this is, after all, Loretta Chase we’re talking about. The banter is decent, and Charlotte and Darius spar amusingly, with a rather memorable scene in the library making me chuckle out loud. I just couldn’t help but feel that the book would’ve been vastly improved if, say, Charlotte had had to suffer the rest of her life not knowing what had happened to the child, or she and Darius had sparred more and had a relationship that had developed more slowly, or if we’d seen more of the fallout as a consequence of the bastard child Charlotte bore—in short, if the book hadn’t taken the easy way out so many damn times in a row.
I do have to mention that Chase did a great job with the secondary characters, because they take on a life and vividness that most other authors can only dream of for their main characters. Chase pulls off her characteristic inversion-of-expectations with the villain, a military man who, unlike the other suitors Charlotte has successfully brushed off, is smart enough to see through her tactics and deploy some novel tactics of his own. (Oh, would that Chase had done the same on the secret baby plot. Cry.) You’re set up to think he’s going to be an evil, evil bastard, but no, he ends up being a human. Fancy that.
When I put this book down, I thought “Meh. Yet another readable but predictable romance novel. Disappointing. B-.” But when I thought about the secret baby plot, the outrage at its squandered possibilities eclipsed my other reactions to the book, so I knocked it one down another half grade to C+. Then I re-read the irritating portions, and though still irritating, they really were quite well-written, so: back to B-. Verging on a C.
I checked a couple of other review sites and Amazon before making this review live, and it looks like most people loved this like it was their mama. So bring it, bitches! Tell me how wrong I am.