You guys do understand that I read these primarily because I enjoy it, right? I mean, some of them were “unpleasant” (Purity’s Passion, I am looking at you), some are off the hook (Forbidden Desires? That’s you) and some are so wonderfully trashy I can’t help but adore them (Henley is my kryptonite).
For the most part, I enjoy it. I think I have a very selective form of masochism. And, in general, if I truly hate it, or it’s just not interesting enough to review, I won’t review it. This book is a bit different, though. Because I did hate it, but there’s a facet here that I haven’t seen discussed a lot.
I blame Zoe Archer for this. She put the cover of this book on her tumblr, with the caption “My books don’t look like this.” That, of course, is like waving a red flag at a bull and throwing him a china shop. I HAD to read it. (Because I’m the bull, see?) (…that sounds rather bad.) (Yes, I know Mythbusters thinks they busted the bull in china shop myth, but they had problems with their methodology in that one, so it’s still open, as far as I am concerned.)
This book is FUCKED. UP. Not deliciously fucked up like Seduced, and not fucked up in a “what the shit is this history you are butchering” like another early Henley a friend of mine loaned me. There is nothing delicious about this. This is FUCKED UP LIKE WHOA.
Our heroine is Jessica, alternatively known as Jess or Jessie, who grew up in St. Louis (which counts as “back East” which I can tell you amuses the hell out of people on the East coast. When they think about these things, which is not a lot). She grew up without her father, because her mother couldn’t hack it in the Wyoming territory. After her mother died, she decides to go to Wyoming to find her father.
One the way there, she is taking a bath in a hotel in some town in Wyoming, where the door is busted down by Steve Kincaid (our….uh, hero, I guess) in the throes of a fight. Jessica pulls on her robe and tell him to leave, while he…. Kisses her, gropes her, and would have taken her to bed right then and there had someone else not come into her room. He leaves and she’s like “what the fuck was that. Thank god I’ll never see him again.”
So she gets to Wyoming, makes friends with the local madam, and finds her father, Jeff, and they have a freakishly perfect relationship right off the bat. Which from my experience in and observation of estranged parent-child relationships, this is not how that ever works.
But that’s not the truly fucked up thing.
Steve is the part owner of a neighboring ranch to Jeff’s place, and realizes that Jess is Jeff’s daughter. He’s been taken with her and hunts her down and turns out that she lived next door- it’s another one of those mostly closed-universes where there’s a limited number of people who show up and they JUST KEEP SHOWING UP. Makes it easier to keep track of everyone, but as far as feeling realistic, well, not so much.
But that’s not the truly fucked up thing.
At some point, when Steve finds Jess, he accosts her and fondles her and is all like “hey baby let’s get it on” and she gets angry and determines that he is at Kincaid’s ranch, and therefore must work for Kincaid, and informs him that she’s going to complain to his boss about his behavior. He tells her to stop struggling, unless she was prepared for him to make love to her there and then, and who would blame him when, “I tell them how prettily you undressed for me?” He allows her to think that she’ll get some satisfaction from complaining to the owner for the Kincaid ranch, and she finds out that her stalker and the next-door neighbor are the same person at a party. Where she wears a smoking hot pimped out dress that makes her boobs look great, so therefore she’s fair game.
You begin to see the truly fucked up thing. What I’m going to try to do (and we will see if it works) is just straight recap- because seriously, none of you need to read this, please don’t let this bullet I’m taking be in vain- and then editorialize and dissect it. Because I will go off on pages and pages of tangents and that’s no way to follow a story line.
Now, Jeff and Jess need money to make improvements to Jeff’s ranch, so Jeff borrows some from Steve. At the party, when Jess discovers that Steve is the douchebag who accosted her in the hotel that one time, she flips her shit, but he, tells her first that she left her skirt behind in their “argument” and he’ll tell everyone, unless she agrees to marry him. And if she doesn’t agree to marry him, he’ll call in the money that he loaned her father, and they just don’t have $500 lying around to pay him back with. She agrees, grudgingly.
The next day, Jess decides that clearly her was bluffing- there’s no other way about it, obviously this guy wouldn’t blackmail her into marriage and/or sex, right? She gets a message from him to come to the ranch, and she sends back a reply that tells him to go to hell (verbatim). His response? “Jessica Morgan, you are one spirited filly, but there’s been not one yet I haven’t broken and ridden.” So he goes after her, and there’s a bit of a horse chase, and he finally catches her, and there’s a whole thing where she tells him to go away, to not touch her, to leave her alone, bargain or no. And he tells her to stop professing to be a lady while she kicks and moans like a common whore. And then he calls her a cold-blooded bitch.
At which point she gives up and gives in, and they have some allegedly great sex, (even though he thinks that he needed her consent, even if given begrudgingly) and he is shocked -shocked!- to discover she was a virgin. Because only an experienced woman would…stand in her own hotel room after a bath with her nipples getting hard and respond to sexual pleasure.
Afterwards, she sleeps and he’s thinking this is great. He needs an heir, and he likes her and wants her, but god knows he doesn’t love her. She naturally, is utterly in love with him, because that’s what the Mighty Wang does. And is convinced that he loves her, because… that’s what the Mighty Wang does. But he asks her to marry him, for real, not because of the money, and she accepts.
Steve goes to a Cattlemen’s Association meeting or something that take him out of town for about a week, and Jess decides that hanging out at his ranch for wedding planning is a good idea. Also living at the ranch are Chad and Sarah- Chad is Steve’s partner, and Sarah is Chad’s wife. They and Jess of course hit it off enormously, and things are going well. There’s also a cook/housekeeper, named Connie, but all her friends call her Red. Because of the red hair. (Which shouldn’t annoy me, since lots of people call me Red, because of the red hair, but STIILL.) (I’m gonna cut to the chase here and tell you that Connie and Jeff hook up and get married.)
Steve runs into an ex of his, Margo, another woman in town that’s a spoiled rich brat who he’s fucked, and kind of thought about marrying until Jess came along. She doesn’t like the idea of not marrying Steve, so first she tries to seduce him, and when that fails, she marches off to Steve’s ranch to get rid of Jess. Which she does by pushing Jess down the stairs and trying to kill her.
(We’re not even a third of way through.)
Jess isn’t sure what made her fall, and isn’t willing to accuse Margo without proof, and then Margo drops the bomb that she is aware of the welts Jess left on Steve’s back while fucking him. Which makes Jess think that Steve and Margo have been making the beast with two backs. Steve comes home to find Jess angry and Margo telling him that she saw Chad and Jess possibily doing the nasty, so Steve flips his shit out and blames Chad for everything, and Jess leaves.
No, seriously, based on one sentence from Margo, Steve beats the shit out of Chad. And it gets sorted by about five minutes of conversation. I mean, really.
Jess goes back into town and seeks refuge from the local Madam (Who’s named Roxy, because of course she is). Jess still thinks that Steve was fucking Margo, and Roxy is all on Team Jess on this point. Steve comes to Roxy, looking for Jess, and Roxy doesn’t tell him that Jess in her house, but thinks that he isn’t acting like a guy who’s dumped Jess for Margo, so obviously he is in love. Then a random gunfight breaks out and Jess gets hit by a stray bullet and leaves town.
Where she gets picked up by the local Native American tribe- Absaroke, or Crow, depending on who is talking. Jess is wounded and all, so she hangs with the Absaroke while she recovers. She’s given the name Valley Woman because… she has hidden depths or something? I don’t even know. But as she’s working on being a productive member of society, she gets the feeling she’s being watched, and the Absaroke woman she’s been living with, Little Sparrow, tells her that there’s a guy who shows up some times, his name is Hawk and he is a member of the tribe, has been watching her for DAYS.
Jess thinks that she might like this guys that she’s never seen, not once, and decides that fucking him will make her forget Steve. So she tells Little Sparrow to tell her husband that if Hawk should visit, she would serve him. In all the ways that means. So he does, and sure enough, Hawk is in fact Steve.
“Why, woman, sigh?” A deep throaty whisper asked against her hair.
Jess nestled her head back against his shoulder. “I…I thought…”
“Answer, “ he breathed huskily when she paused.
Baring her soul, Jess answered honestly, “I thought only one man could make me feel this way.”
“Only one man can, Jess, “ a clear voice growled.
“No!” she shrieked, her body stiffening. It was another bad dream! This was Hawk, not…
So she begs him not to do this, but her body surrenders even as she says no. (Gag.)
In the morning, Jess finds Little Sparrow and is told that Little Sparrow was helping both Jess and Steve- Jess loves Steve and Steve wants Jess, so what’s the problem? Steve does apologize to Jess about the whole Margo thing, and tells her that Little Sparrow’s husband said that what Jess really needs is a beating. But instead he will pick her up and carry her back to the tent, because that’s a much better way of shutting her up. And as he does so, Jess screams for help, and Little Sparrow turn away from Jess and Steve with smiles.
Steve brings Jess back to her father’s house, who is utterly unconcerned with the fact that she’s been gone for weeks, and is hopeful that “maybe Steve had managed to tame his daughter at last.” Of course, he hasn’t, and she’s fuming about how she won’t marry him. Steve eventually says to her that he’ll respect her decisions.
Jess was more wary than ever. Could this be the same self-assured man who had manipulated her life?
“…I’m still going to marry you but I’ve decided to give you time to come to grips with the idea.”
Because clearly what she wants is courting. So courting he shall do. He also decides to forgive the money he’d loaned Jeff as a bride price (because some of the Indian tribes do that). Jess thinks this is bullshit and that she’s being bought and sold, and not because Steve loves her. So she yells enough that Steve storms out (seriously, it’s like Moonlighting, but just tiresome) and everyone tells Jess that she and Steve just need to “stop bickering” and “settle things.”
Jess thinks fine, lets do that then, and tries to settle the money issue so she and Jeff can be free and clear of Steve for real, and Steve again tries to get her to agree to the sex for money exchange, but really, she wouldn’t be a whore. Instead he forces her to bed. Again.
“I’m….I’m sorry, Jessie. I swear I didn’t mean for this to happen.” Steve saw the tears and felt like a bastard.
Because they need money, Jess starts working for Roxy. Not as a whore, god no, that would not do. Instead she works as a hostess, and of course everyone respects the limits she sets, because there’s only one man in the world who won’t take her no for an answer. Steve finds out, of course, and goes to bother her at work, where Roxy is perfectly happy to let them fight it out in public. Of course nothing is solved, because we’re only halfway through, and Steve finally decides, with Jeff’s blessing, to kidnap Jess.
Let me repeat that. Steve decides the only way to get Jess to agree with his view of the world is to KIDNAP her. And her father gives his blessing. “I’m on your side, my boy. I was just picturing my lovely daughter’s reaction when she finds out what you have in store for her.”
(Pardon me, I have to vomit.)
So Steve kidnaps her by WHACKING HER ON THE HEAD, which naturally gives her amnesia (OF COURSE IT DOES), and he tells her, when she wakes up, that they just got married. So they have an enjoyable interlude in a cabin in the mountains. Just about when the snow is going to start falling, a mountain man comes by, who knew Jess’ mother, and tells her she came from St. Louis, which is not the same thing Steve had been telling her. They start fighting, and he is not longer gentle with her and then she remembers everything.
She convinces the mountain man to help her get home, leaving Steve trapped in the cabin for the winter (more contrived timing could not be had). The mountain man convinces Steve to give her until spring, and Steve’s response to that? “…come spring, I’m going, and if I have to bind and gag her to have her back, I will, and not you or anyone else will stand in my way.”
She’s very sad, and misses him a lot, but is determined to go on home and leave him behind for good.
You can guess how well that works out.
Jess also discovers that she is pregnant, because of course she is. She gives birth before Steve can come down off the mountain. But not before she’s told that she has commitment issues. And that’s why she and Steve can’t work their shit out. It’s a boy, and she gets a job working at an orphanage Roxy started (but no one is town knows that she’s backing, because of the whole “hooker” thing).
Steve comes into town and finds Jess there, and finds out that the baby is his son, and not just some random orphan and brings Jess (kicking and screaming, literally) back to the ranch, where he attempts again to court her with no sex. For six weeks. He tells Jess that she has to come with him, or he’ll ruin her father and tell the boarding school that houses Roxy’s daughter what her mother does. So Jess HAS to go with him.
Everyone in town is pleased as punch at this, because Jess and Steve are just perfect for each other, they just need to accept it.
Jess leaves, again, and hides with Absaroke, while Steve runs to St. Louis and back looking for her, and finally finds her with the tribe. Jess is told that she can become a full member of the tribe, if she wants. She’s told that to do that, she must go to a tent hidden in the woods or whatever and stay there for three days. Naturally, Steve is there, and she’s like “…but I’m becoming a member of the tribe!” and he says “Well, actually we’re in a marriage tent right now, and I am a member of the tribe, so yes, by marriage you are!”
What the fuck.
WHAT IN THE ACTUAL FUCK.
WHAT IS THIS FUCKERY.
We could talk about the rape, because, face it, there’s a lot of “no, no!” and punishing kisses and overbearing her will, but we’ve talked about that. At length. And I think you guys get it. There’s only a handful of time where Jess is consenting from beginning to end, and a lot of those are when she has amnesia.
When I told Zoe that this was her fault, I also told her that if this book were presented as a spotter’s guide to abusive relationships, that would be one thing. But this relationship, in all of its abusive text that is not subtext, is represented as a happy, fluffy romance, and if they would just admit that they love each other, IT WOULD BE OKAY
Well. As a survivor of an abusive relationship, let me tell you. “Lack of love” is not the problem. The problem is control. The problem is violence. The problem is agency. The problem is that it’s SO HARD to get out. And even though it’s been over ten years, there are still ripples from the entire mess in my life. And I was lucky- I was able to end it comparatively early. So.
We talk a lot about Alpha males, but of all the old school romances I’ve read, and there have been quite a few, this is the most disgustingly abusive asshole I’ve ever seen called a hero. I’ve seen less abusive villains. And I don’t we’ve talked about abusive behavior a great deal- it doesn’t come up much, and usually if there is abusive behavior, the hero (it’s always the hero, never the heroine) makes an effort to change as part of his character arc.
There are so many ways that Steve displays extreme controlling behavior. He won’t let her make choices, he gets angry when he thinks she’s been talking with another man, when he wants sex and she doesn’t, he grabs her hair and yanks her head around until she acquiesces. He threatens her and the people she loves unless she stays with him.
Now, in early Roman law, there was a provision in contract law that consent under duress is still consent. But Roman jurists figured out that that was a douchey thing, and recognized that consent under duress is not consent at all. And Jess consistently says no until it’s clear that “no” isn’t going to make a difference. Now, this could be a case of showing “good girls don’t willingly enjoy sex,” because as written she does enjoy it once she accepts the inevitable. Pairing it with the emotional abuse and ultra-controlling behavior makes it even worse.
The thing that gets me SO MUCH and makes me so angry is that Steve’s behavior is presented as normal and admirable, so there’s no reason for him to grow or change. As long as he admits that he loves Jess, everything will be fine.
And that’s bullshit. No one calls him out, no one says “Dude, SHE SAID NO. Maybe you should leave her alone.” Anywhere Jess tries to go for help ends up throwing her under the bus- he goes so far as to chase her to St. Louis when he thinks she went there. Really, the only realistic end I see for these two characters is one of them will kill the other.
The thing I found most terrifying was the number of people who saw what Steve was doing, and didn’t see a problem with it. Even as Jess is screaming for him to stop, to put her down, to go away, they all either turned away or told her to stop struggling and smiling knowingly. Her own father is down with the idea of Steve kidnapping her and stealing her away for months. At the very end, the Absaroke are willing to let her think she’s performing one ritual, when really she’s getting married without her consent.
Now, I do think that it’s important to explore the mindset of the abuser- if we can understand it, maybe we can prevent it, right? It’s one reason why I like the Eminem-Rhianna song “Love the Way You Lie,” because I think it does explore the mentality of both abuser and abused and how it’s not all bad and certainly not all good and how it all can spiral out of control and why people stay in these relationships. Some of it is awful, but they call the period between outbursts the “Honeymoon period” for a reason.
I’m just saying.
Anyway, this isn’t an exploration of an abusive relationship. It doesn’t try to be anything other than a fluffy romance, but it’s horrible. It’s the Twilight syndrome, only decades early. Stalker = love. Controlling behavior = love. Abuse = love.
The writing itself isn’t good- it’s very first-novel-y and awkward. I mean, I’m told in the early 90s, the publishing houses were pretty much buying anything which is how a bunch of this schlock got published in the first place. But in light of everything else, I don’t care all that much about bad writing. The character of the entire story is off-putting.
The only thing that kept me from throwing this book is the fact that I was on a cross-country flight and the air marshall would have tackled me (and rightfully so). As it was, I suspect my seatmate got pretty tired of me going “WHAT” and “OH GOD” every three pages.