by Courtney Milan, historical (2011)
HQN, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-373-77543-9
The Turners and the Dalrymples are not exactly fond of each other. Once upon a time, the Duke of Parford refused to help Ash Turner's family, and now Ash has repaid the favor by seizing control of the dukedom and everything that comes with it, leaving the former Duke's children to dangle helplessly from the figurative noose. As Ash, now a self-made man with lots of money, visits his new home, Parford Manor, he has no idea that the lovely companion to the former earl, Miss Lowell, is actually the daughter of his enemy.
Unveiled is, from a technical point of view, a very readable book. But the whole story leaves me unmoved. In a way, this book reminds me of Amanda Quick's Scandal, another tale of a man who seeks revenge on a family only to fall for the daughter, only without the layered complexities and nuances of that book.
Margaret is a martyr, spending the whole book bearing the brunt of her father's verbal cruelty again and again while repeating to herself, "But he's my father!" It's depressing: her father repeatedly rejects her and her brothers are more than happy to throw her to the wolves for their own happiness, but here she is, dangling after them and begging for scraps of affection. She doesn't do anything to warrant her happy ending: she endures, yes, and she adores Ash mostly because of how he treats other people around him, and that's about it. I wish she'd lose her temper at least once and tell the people around her that she's sick and tired of being taken for granted, but I guess that would tarnish her halo.
As for Ash, he comes off as a man who would come up with convoluted justifications for his own actions while condemning others for doing the same things. In this story, he'd accuse the men in Margaret's life for coming up with ridiculous justifications for their mistreatment of her, and yet, in this story, I see Ash coming up with similarly ridiculous justifications. While condemning Margaret's brothers as men who callously take advantage of helpless women, Ash plots to have Margaret, whom he knows only as a member of his staff, in his bed. Is his "I'll seduce you into succumbing to me, even if you protest that you don't want it!" school of thought any different from those of men who take advantage of women who can't say no? I don't think so.
And as Ash condemns other men for being opportunists and users, he at the same time doesn't spare much thought for the Dalrymple siblings, who are actually collateral damages in his feud with the Dalrymple patriarch. Oh yes, he wants to take care of his brothers, he reasons... but those men aren't wanting for much, from what I see in this story. Ash uses a lot of weak justifications for his own actions even as he condemns others for doing the same. He's a hypocrite for way too long in this story.
Still, a long and good grovel would have salvaged matters, but no, I get instead some casual blink-and-I'd-have-missed-it mention of Ash saying that his own selfishness as well as her brothers' have condemned Margaret to plenty of hurt. (Then again, our heroine probably doesn't mind, as she's a professional martyr who would like the way it hurts.) His actions late in the story, a combined attempt by Ms Milan to convince me that he really loves Margaret after all is said and done, are timed too late to convince me of that.
The romance is a bit iffy as well. Ash treats Margaret as if he's her Pepé Le Pew - he wants her, he will make her want it too, so he can then have sex with her with conscience clear and I can pretend that there is no disparity of power at play here. Margaret, on her part, sees how he treats the other household staff nicely and quivers with excitement when he takes advantage of his position as the lord of the household to make her gag for his manly macaroni. (Then again, she does love being a martyr, so she would no doubt love the way he lies.) Ash's decision to do right when it comes to Margaret is marred by unfortunate timing that has me wondering whether he'd be so magnanimous should she be, say, the daughter of a tradesman. I don't see why Margaret would love Ash, since he doesn't treat her as well as he should. I don't get this vibe from the story that Ash is the right man for Margaret. He just happens to be the only decent man around compared to the other men in Margaret's life.
And this leads me to another reason for my dissatisfaction with this story: Ms Milan is way too transparent when it comes to creating escape clauses for Ash's antics in this story. Margaret's father and brothers are cartoon villains, users and abusers to an exaggerated degree. On one hand, this makes Ash look like a hero since his own manipulation of the people around him is far more subtle in comparison, but it also makes Margaret look like a colossal idiot for attempting to die at the cross for these men. I can't help thinking that this story would have been far more interesting and complex if, say, Margaret's brothers had been genuinely nice people who happened to be victims of Ash's feud with their father. That would have given Ash plenty of reasons to feel conflicted and realize the extent of his own hypocrisy. This story is rife with potential when it comes to emotional drama, but the author dumbs down the whole thing by reducing the bad guys to cartoon characters.
Ultimately, Unveiled is a disappointing read because it could have been so much better than the one-dimensional tale of revenge against the cartoon goons that it turned out to be.
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