by Liz Carlyle, historical (2004)
Pocket, $6.99, ISBN 0-7434-7003-6
Liz Carlyle's A Deal With The Devil is a far more refreshing story than her last few offerings as it is less stereotypical than usual. The hero is also a very disagreeable character at the start, which is fun if you're looking for a jerk who is going to be crowbarred at the kneecaps by love. Unfortunately, the author puts the the redemption theme to the backburner as the heroine's problems surge to the forefront towards the later portions of the story, and the bad news is, the heroine is one of those tiresome disagreeable martyrs so desperate yet so passive that this story isn't as enjoyable as it could have been after all.
Giles, Lord Walrafen, is a champion for the rights of the common man in Parliament, but his charity extends no further than lip service and the signing of documents. His baggages aren't well-explained here - readers would have to read A Woman Of Virtue to fully appreciate Giles' emotional baggages as well as his relationship with Cecilia Markham. This is one problem with this book, by the way: several scenes involving Giles and other secondary characters allude to events that take place in A Woman Of Virtue. In that aspect, A Deal With The Devil may not stand alone too well.
Anyway, on with the story: Giles has been plagued by letters from his housekeeper for two years. The housekeeper, Mrs Montford, keeps the isolated and derelict Castle Cardow in order. Giles' uncle lives in Castle Cardow and since his uncle is a womanizer, Giles wonder whether the amusing and sarcastic housekeeper is warming his uncle's bed. When his uncle is murdered, Giles reluctantly returns to Castle Cardow to learn that the housekeeper is a beautiful woman. Alas, the woman he is attracted to and has full intention of abusing his employer privileges to get her in his bed is also the prime suspect of the murder of his uncle. Aubrey Montford (not her real name) is a woman with secrets however and soon Giles will have to play the knight in shining armor to slay all the demons she is too pathetic to even stand up to for herself.
I should have known that Aubrey is going to be irritating when in the prologue, she says that she cannot change the Christian names of herself and the boy she is protecting, Iain, because it just doesn't feel right. Never mind that they are on the run. And it gets worse a few pages later when the heroine keeps saying that it is so hard for her to lie, and instead of lying through her teeth to seek sanctuary by gaining employment in Castle Cardow, all she can do is to close her eyes and pitifully beg Giles' uncle to stop asking her questions and just hire her for the sake of this man's friendship with Aubrey's late father. I would have pegged her there and then as an idiot, but she seems to get her act together and turns Castle Cardow into a more hospitable place. Surely she can't be that bad, right? Wrong. From getting off at being pathetically helpless to sleeping with Giles when she needs to remain a virgin to keep her deception going to "understanding" and "sensing" the honor and kindness in the men that are treating her like dirt to justifying her staying under their soles, Aubrey is a damsel-in-distress through and through. With no sense of humor and wearing utter desperation like a shroud (no money, nowhere to run, employer forcing her to sleep with him, oh, oh, oh!), she causes the love story in this book to come off as an uneven relationship where the hero holds all the power.
Because she doesn't challenge the hero emotionally and intellectually, it is hard for me to view Aubrey and Giles' relationship as healthy. Aubrey doesn't have a choice and refuses to entertain any choices other than to be a "good woman", cower, run, hide, and whimper, so I really feel creeped out when Giles decides to seduce her. He justifies his actions as okay because she's attracted to him. But at the same time, Aubrey, while attracted to him, is also wringing her hands because she will be dismissed and has nowhere to go if she displeases him and gets fired. Not that I really sympathize with her - it's hard to sympathize with a woman who seems to insist on being a martyr as much as Aubrey - I just don't enjoy the love story as much as I should because I will always wonder whether Aubrey the martyr really wants him or her attraction is just a form of defensive mechanism on her part.
It is a good thing, therefore, that while Aubrey's middle name is Enabler, Giles doesn't fully take advantage of her. He starts out a really disagreeable creature and this sexual harassment of his is just in character for him. But there's a clear progression in his redemption and character evolution. When he grows as a character, he becomes a really fascinating character to follow. It is just unfortunate that his epiphany seems to stem from him realizing the true extent of the heroine's desperate neediness and his protective instincts being aroused. While the character development feels credible and solid, the reasons for Giles' changes as a person do not.
Thanks to Giles, A Deal With The Devil is a solid, satisfying read on the whole. It is just unfortunate that Ms Carlyle pairs Giles with a heroine that is no match for him in any way. When the romance seems to be catalyzed by the hero having to save the heroine from the world and herself, I find it very easy to imagine that he will feel suffocated by her inability to do anything well apart from enduring like a martyr, cleaning the house, and taking care of the kids. A Deal With The Devil is a book with top-notch writing, a compelling hero, lackluster execution, and an exasperating and lifeless heroine.
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