This RITA® Reader Challenge 2014 review was written by Lila. This story was nominated for the RITA® in the Erotic Romance category.
This is the second story in It Stings So Sweet.
In the aftermath of a wild, liquor-soaked party, three women from very different social classes are about to live out their forbidden desires. Clara Cartwright, sultry siren of the silent screen, is introduced to a mysterious WWI Flying Ace. If Clara, darling of the scandal sheets, knows anything, it’s men. And she’s known plenty. But none of them push her boundaries like the aviator, who lures her into a ménage with a stranger in a darkened cinema then steals her jaded heart. One party serves as a catalyst of sexual awakening. And in an age when anything goes, three women discover that anything is possible…
My first exposure to Stephanie Draven was through a blog post she wrote in response to this year’s bizarro RITA finalist selection process. First, it’s great that there’s now an erotic romance category, but only three finalists? When there are literally a gazillion historical romance finalists? (Full disclosure: I haven’t actually counted the historical romance finalists. I could be off a bit.) How does that happen exactly?
Well, this is not the place to go into this. But Draven’s post addressing various aspects of the debate alerted me to her writing. Which was, frankly, a relief, because I did not like the one finalist I’d read in the category at all and was only mildly intrigued by the other.
But this. THIS. Wow. If this doesn’t win in this wee little category, then I’m hanging up my amateur reviewer beret and starting a gif-sourcing business for more intrepid reader-reviewers. (Full disclosure: I haven’t read the “mildly intriguing” finalist and could be dead wrong, so backsies. I’d also suck at gif sourcing. Nothin’ but Golden Girls.)
When I’m Bad I’m Better is one of three linked novellas set in the Twenties. And I have to say, if you’re going to write a historical erotic romance, when else would you set it than in the Twenties? Sheer brilliance, that. A post-war carpe diem attitude combined with booze of questionable quality and easy-access retro undergarments equals fabulously loose morals and endless possibilities. Gosh, that sounds fun.
Silent screen star Clara Cartwright is the poster girl for loose morals. In her words (or possibly those of Clara Bow, Draven’s inspiration for the character), she’s done it all, “at least twice.” When she meets World War I flying ace Leo Vanderberg at a party, though, he manages to shock her. And it doesn’t take much, in the opinion of this slightly jaded erotica reader, but context, people. Even though right now it seems to be everywhere (on page, to clarify), for a goodly portion of history, butt sex has been a bit beyond the pale. At least I think it has…I should probably do research or something and watch Vikings. Oooh, excellent plan!
Actually, it’s the idea of two men that’s shocking. Clara’s done a lot, but not that one. So Leo shocks her with a fantasy Double Stuf, and then he stalks her, and she momentarily plays hard to get, even though she totally knows they’re going to do it.
And he knows she knows. And he has plans, wicked, wicked plans. He wants to break down the cynical sex bomb and make her feel vulnerable:
“It’s going to feel like the first time. You’re going to be scared. Embarrassed. Needy. And you’re not going to be in control.”
As much in control as Leo tries to be, part of the charm of this couple is how Clara is just so much hotness that she flusters him and upends his plans a tad. Not enough to undermine his control entirely, but enough to make the two very worthy opponents. Leo’s no Dom; he’s just in lust with a girl who has had a lot of guys lusting after her, and he wants to stand out. So if things don’t always go perfectly according to plan, bonus orgasm!
Leo does actually have the upper hand, though. Way back when, Clara made a stag film with her boyfriend and another girl. Leo gets his hands on the film and wants some quality time with Clara in exchange. (You can actually find the film that inspired Draven, Nudist Bar, on the web, if you dare. Sooo NSFW, obvs. Total retro porn.)
Naturally Clara’s career could be destroyed if knowledge of the film got out via carrier pigeon and telegraph, so she agrees. They watch the film together. Then he watches the film with another man so that she’s forced to think about a stranger watching her film. And then Leo brings the other man together with Clara. Cue the scariness and humiliation and need and, erm, sandwich-cookie action.
Clara’s a fantastic character. She’s a legend in her own time, but she won’t forget where she came from or where she’ll end up if she’s not careful. Her career is in jeopardy from talkies and she relies on the kindness of sugar daddies, but she’s thinking ahead by branching out as an independent producer. She’s confident but careful. She’s also street-smart, used to using sex to get what she needs:
“Big Teddy is just one more man in a long string of them who thought they were using me…”
I love that attitude, appropriate during a rare (but temporary) time of progress for women: they use her for sex, but she uses them right back for that and so much more — film financing, penthouse apartments, and moments of genuine affection.
Another thing I like? How Clara’s reputation isn’t a turn-off in the least; quite the opposite, actually. Her mother calls her a whore, but Leo respects her for being a woman who takes what she wants and doesn’t apologize for it. He also wants the thrill of breaking down her defenses and giving her something she’s never had before, and that task is only made more rewarding by the challenge her history presents:
“I hope your list numbers in the hundreds…this way, when you admit I’m the best you’ve ever had, it’ll really mean something.”
Right, that and the respect thing, I swear.
Leo’s just that confident, but he’s also smitten and doesn’t mind showing it. He’s all witty banter and scandalous demands and bloomer-melting glances, but Clara can easily disarm him. And she can easily break his heart. It turns out that while she’s avoided falling in love to protect herself, Leo’s desperate for someone’s love to save him. So he nabs that love through a ménage à trois. Um, naturally.
Clara’s not a sure thing even when she’s in love, though. She’s better on her own, she thinks, where she can’t damage anyone else or lose her hard-won independence. It’s not always the most convincing excuse, but since it’s a novella you don’t have to dwell on that for long.
The smutty scenes are brilliant — packed with growth and character development and raised stakes, they’re also scorching hot and tastefully written. The ménage isn’t a whim thrown in just for a novel thrill; it has repercussions in this story and the story that follows it. Deliciously hot scenes combined with clever, fast-paced, olden-times banter and heartbreaking chemistry, along with requisite period fashion, all create a fine sense of atmosphere. The research that went into the book is evident, and it’s also evident when Draven chose wording for a modern audience on purpose. Sometimes such a choice is jarring because it is so obvious, and the period-appropriate conversation can be patchy, but I appreciated that it wasn’t overwhelming to the point of cliché. Thoughtful writing and a breathtaking ending complete the package.
Erotic romance should be this considered and skillful. It isn’t always, or maybe even often, though. I guess I understand a bit after reading When I’m Bad I’m Better why there are only three finalists. (Although even I could think of a couple more very worthy candidates. Jeepers.)
By the way, the rest of the book is worth reading too, but I’m not surprised this was the story to make the RITA list. It’s the most complex, mature, and sexy of the three, although the other two have their merits.