This month's theme in Keishon's 2009 TBR Challenge is to read a book that we bought because of a DIK (i.e. Desert Isle Keeper) review over at AAR. I discovered that I don't have very many unread AAR DIK's lying (laying?--I never know) around. There's Outlander, but that sucker would have taken too long to read. Sigh. One day. Anyhow, I found that I had this book stashed away. I bought it used off Amazon's Marketplace almost exactly 5 years ago. The DIK review is by an AAR reader and may be found here.
If anyone ever wrote the quintessential “tortured hero,” I’m guessing it would be Anne Stuart. Her heroes have been discarded by their families, have made the worst possible choices, and most importantly, seem to thoroughly hate themselves. Usually they are redeemed by innocent (yet feisty!) heroines who teach them how to love (think Chloe & Bastien from Black Ice). In this book Nicholas is about as tortured as any hero can be. What's different this time is so is the heroine, Ghislaine.
This historical takes place in 1803 during the tenuous and short-lived Peace of Amiens. Ghislaine is living quietly in England, serving as a chef to her friend, Lady Ellen Fitzwater. Ghislaine is the daughter of French aristos who were beheaded during the Terror. Shortly before Ghislaine's world was torn apart at the age of 15, she met and developed an infatuation for Nicholas Blackthorne, a carefree young man of 22 who was visiting her family. Ghislaine's father, seeing the unrest caused by the Revolution, asks Nicholas to marry Ghislaine and take her safely to England. The father will then get his wife and son to England separately. Nicholas, however, being young and selfish refuses. The Comte is unable to save his family. He and his wife are captured and beheaded; Ghislaine and her little brother escape and are left to fend for themselves on the streets of Paris where Ghislaine's life descends to hell. Ghislaine manages to pull herself up and make a life for herself, but not until after she's been brutalized and permanently separated from her brother. She meets Lady Ellen 9-10 years later and accepts Ellen's offer of a job in England. She is with Ellen when the book opens.
Meanwhile, Nicholas has been living a dissolute life. He is the unwanted second son, left to inherit nothing but debt when his older brother and father die. Nicholas is infamous for the 7 duels he's fought and the 2 men he's killed. He's also a cousin of Lady Ellen. He arrives at Ellen's after his latest duel. He's hiding out until it's determined he either has to flee England for awhile, or it's safe to return to London.
For the last 10 years, all Ghislaine has wanted is revenge upon Nicholas--the target she blames for all of the misery she has had to endure. When he shows up at the estate where she is working, she decides her chance for revenge has come and she poisons Nicholas. While she makes Nicholas very sick, she doesn't manage to kill him. Nicholas realizes he's been poisoned by the cook and he ends up recognizing Ghislaine as the young woman he left behind all those years ago. He had actually been attracted to her back then, but he was not willing to act upon those feelings. So, he decides to kidnap Ghislaine and take her to his property in Scotland where he can seduce her and extract some revenge in return.
When Ellen discovers that Ghislaine has been taken by Nicholas, she goes after them, under the escort of her brother's best friend, Tony. There is a wonderful, very funny romance between these two that we see along with the main story of Nicholas and Ghislaine. Tony and Ellen are an interesting light counterpoint to the dark and tortuous road that Nicholas and Ghislaine have to go down together.
This book is a road story, taking place as they travel first to Scotland, then to Holland, then to Venice, and finally to France. Nicholas and Ghislaine are together constantly, as are Tony and Ellen. However, the four don't get together until the end when they are all in Venice. Ghislaine's story of what she endured after Nicholas "betrayed" her is slowly revealed. Ghislaine is a wonderfully constructed character who is deeply conflicted by her old feelings for Nicholas, by her hatred of him for his betrayal and now his control over her, and by the feelings (attraction) she has for him now. This is also a story of forced seduction that many readers will believe crosses that line over to rape. When Nicholas finally has his way with her, Ghislaine is just as angry with herself as with him because she admits to herself that she loves him. This scene makes sense to me because Nicholas is so full of self-hatred, he only sees himself as destructive. But he finally begins to change and both of them deal with their respective pasts.
I found myself pulled into the story almost immediately and I loved the way Anne Stuart gradually revealled Ghislaine's past. Once I started, I had a hard time putting it down. I'd definely recommend this book, although if books with "forced seduction" turn you off, you might want to avoid it.