by Jo-Ann Power, historical (1998)
Pocket, $6.50, ISBN 0-671-00899-4
Never Again remains one of my favorite "friends first" stories. I have some problems with the premise, but the deft manner in which the author handles the relationship between American heiress Raine Montand and the hero, disgraced former MP Gavin Sutherland reels me into the story to savor every nuance in the relationship.
Set in 1877, Gavin is a disgraced ex-politician living in self-imposed exile in his house at Chipswell-by-the-Sea. Nearly a year ago, a fellow politican and this politician's mistress were murdered. Gavin arrived at the scene of crime to discover that the murderer tried to frame Gavin for the deed by planting Gavin's handkerchief at the scene of crime. Gavin took the handkerchief and fled the scene before the cops arrived. Unfortunately, a cartoonist for a tabloid witnessed Gavin's fight with this politician previously and drew that scene for the tabloid. Gavin became the prime suspect in the murder case, and while he was never implicated for the crimes, his reputation never recovered. His father disowned him after Gavin resigned his post at the Parliament, his engagement to a debutante was quickly dissolved, and his friends deserted him in droves.
Today, Gavin learns that a widow has moved into the cottage across from his house. This widow, Mrs Jennings, applies to be his secretary. Since no one else applied for the post, Gavin has no choice but to hire her. As he slowly learns to trust her and reveal his plan to make a political comeback as well as to clear his name, little does he know that Mrs Jennings has her own secrets. She is Raine Montand, an American heiress who arrived in England to look for a husband only to discover a career in drawing political caricatures under the name "Raynard the Fox". It is she that witnessed that brawl between Gavin and the murdered politician and later produced that cartoon that ruined Gavin's reputation.
Here is where I have problems with the premise. Raine witnessed the fight, but there is no where in this story where I'm told that she found any concrete proof that Gavin isn't a murderer. So when she comes to Chipswell-by-the-Sea to make reparations by aiding Gavin, how does she really know that he's not guilty? Is this one of those visceral "he's hot and cute so I just know he is innocent" thingies that idiot romance heroines are so fond of committing?
Still, Gavin is a really good man. Seriously, he is. He's not a rake, in fact, he's a devoted politician who actually spends time championing the causes he believes in instead of sleeping around and getting drunk. He's not a spy. He's just a dedicated politician who never gives up even when the odds are staggeringly heavy against him, Captain America transplanted to England minus the drug-enhanced superpowers but with the drive for justice intact. Raine is also a wonderfully level-headed heroine in her subsequent interactions with Gavin, at least, until the last moment when the author makes Raine pull a silly stunt. But even then, I'm willing to make some concessions for her action - sometimes, love can make people do stupid things, after all, and one or two silly actions is okay with me when Raine is intelligent in every other way.
What makes this book really good is the relationship between these two characters. For a long time, the story is just about these two in an intimate setting. As Raine and Gavin work together, their attraction to each other only becomes stronger with every encounter. By the end of the book, these two know each other intimately in every way that counts because they talk to each other about themselves and everything and anything like two people who connect in every way would. I especially love how the author uses scenes of apparently simple and quiet moments between Gavin and Raine to illustrate their growing affections for each other, such as when Raine cooks a fish and invites Gavin over for dinner. (Please don't start with historical accuracy and what not - let's not spoil the cozy intimacy the author skilfully weaves in her story, okay?) There are books where I wonder how the hero and the heroine will last beyond the honeymoon weekend. In Never Again, there is never any doubt that these two belong together. They fit together so well, heart, body, and soul, that the romance feels right in every way.
I also enjoy the fact that Gavin is never plagued by self-pity. When he realizes that he loves Raine and he wants to spend the rest of his life with her, his resolution to clear his name and rebuild his career merely solidify. There's no "he's no good for her" nonsense from him. Likewise, Raine does feel guilty over what she did to him, but she acts to make amends to him instead of wringing her hands in exasperating self-doubt. She doesn't stammer or act like a stereotypical guilt-ridden historical dingbat heroine. Instead, she comes off as a heroine capable of taking care of herself and making rational, well-thought over decisions in life. Gavin and Raine are equals in their relationship when it comes to intellect and emotional maturity.
Most enjoyable is how when Raine's secret is revealed, Gavin actually takes the time to listen to her. This can be the case of Gavin coming off as probably too much of a Captain America with perfection personified, but then again, Gavin and Raine have such an idealized, romanticized love story that is so perfect in every way that Gavin's willingness to listen to her and even forgive her (he thinks that she was just doing her job) seems nicely in character.
The mystery as to who killed the politician and his mistress is resolved mostly off-stage, which is an anticlimatic way to end the story. Still, the relationship between Raine and Gavin is good enough to make up for that disappointment.
With its very well-drawn love story between two very likeable and level-headed human characters, Never Again is a very luscious emotional treat. Jo-Ann Power doesn't write romance novels anymore and she has never written another book that is as good as Never Again, so if you wish to start at this author's backlist or are just looking for a well-written romance story, give this book a try.
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