I have a lot to say about this novella, so let's get the plot summary part done – which is not easy as a lot happens in a short space. Serena Barton was fired from her position as a governess because she was raped by the duke of Clermont, but because she didn't fight back or shout when it happened, she holds herself partially responsible. Serena is determined to be heard and seen now that she's pregnant, and decides for her own sake and the sake of the child she's now carrying, she will sit outside the duke's home and humiliate him – and cause more discord with the duke's very wealthy wife, alienating the duke from the spouse and fortune he very much needs. The longer she sits outside the duke's home in all sorts of lovely London weather, the more people will wonder, and talk, and speculate. She will cause the duke trouble by refusing to hide – especially when she begins to show.
Hugo Marshall is an employee of the duke of Clermont, known as “the Wolf of Clermont.” He's sort of the consigliere of the duke, and is not afraid to hurt people to achieve his ends, which most of the time line up with the duke's needs as well. Hugo's success as Clermont's consigliere mean that he will leave the duke's employ 500 pounds richer, so when the duke tells him that Serena is a disgruntled former employee, and tells Hugo to deal with her, Hugo initially pursues his standard operating procedures, but dreads learning what Serena's actual grievance is with the duke – because knowing as much as he does about Clermont, he knows the duke has likely done something terrible to her. Hugo ultimately finds himself in the position of being tasked to destroy someone he has come to admire – and love.
There are three things I want to say about this novella.
1. It is not as solidly perfect, as contained and structurally sound and powerful as Unlocked, [A | BN | K | S | ARe] which is among my top two novellas that I re-read and recommend (the other being Holiday Sparks [A|BN|K|S|ARe], which is a contemporary). This novella sets up an upcoming trilogy and as a result, it introduces characters at the end. It also features a shortened emotional journey for the main characters, and those two factors combined to leave me as a reader wanting more. As Jane said in her review, I wanted more of everything with the characters, more time to see them and know them better. I felt like I saw an important episode in their lives but I wanted more story – whereas with Unlocked, I felt like I knew those characters deeply (which may have been a function of knowing so much of their past, then their present, and then future in a short story).
2. “Well written” does not begin to describe this story. There is no cruise control or autopilot with Courtney Milan's writing. Everything is there for a reason, and she is never dozing at the wheel. Pay attention and your brain is rewarded with the intellectual equivalent of the best baked goods buffet in the universe. There are no meaningless moments that serve only move us to another big scene. Every scene is important, like those giant complicated Lego construction pieces where each piece builds on another and there's no subbing in some random piece to make do. In her work, each word fits perfectly and every piece is important.
That's how Milan's writing is consistently: every word and scene and sentence is important and when I read her books I know I will be experiencing something better than good, something extraordinary and thoughtful. It is more than competence. It is assurance: this will be quality and it will be intelligent and thoughtful. And you as a reader are in good hands. Milan understands the expectations of the romance reader and the agreement presumed between the reader and the writer when a book is a romance, and meets those expectations easily. Then she adds subtext, meaning and subtlety that makes going back over her writing a pleasure every time.
3. The themes of this novella are beautifully simple, but the way in which they are presented is multifaceted. I don't want to give too much away, but highlight below if you want to read the full paragraph: Serena and Hugo learn that placing the other above themselves elevates them both. Serena is willing to endure censure and outrage because she places her unborn child's life above her own, and her present self above her past, despite being told to do the opposite because she is now “runied.” Hugo learns that his goals are meaningless without Serena, and meeting his goals such as they were in the beginning of the story would no longer satisfy him. Serena becomes more important to Hugo than Hugo himself, and he finds happiness (and forgiveness for the sacrifices others made for him) when he places Serena above himself, and above the duke. Hugo's fortune is tied to the duke's, and what was good for the duke was good for Hugo. Now, what is best for the duke is what is worst for Serena – and thus for Hugo. Breaking those ties and upsetting that balance of dependence would have made Hugo miserable in the beginning of the story, but by the end, it is the only way to find his happiness.
This is also the first time in awhile I've read a novel casting a character from a television show in a role. I saw Mr. Bates from Downtown Abbey (or, perhaps more accurately said, I saw Brendan Coyle) as Hugo, based on his pugnacious determination, strength and the description of his looks.
The way in which the balance of self vs. loved one is explored in the story is different each time I re-read, and I discover new reflections of the theme every time. The ways in which that gesture of placing another person's life and happiness above your own motivated only by the purest of love are reflected in different scenes and moments every time I re-read this novella.
But every time I re-read it, I want more about the character's movement toward one another. For example, I felt the internal conflict of Hugo moving from placing himself and the duke above Serena to placing her above them both is not explored or explained sufficiently: I knew that ultimately he would get there, but when he arrived so quickly I was surprised. But I still go back and reread it, because even with flaws, it's extraordinary.
It'll easily be the best dollar you spend this month, and among the best hours you'll spend reading in a while. It is worth every cent and every minute.