It’s difficult to know what to say about a very good book with a very bad ending. It was like having a friend invite you to dinner, serve you a fabulous meal in entertaining company, then, just as you’re replete with satisfaction, present you with a bill and demand immediate payment in cash.
Aline Marsden is the older daughter of the Earl of Westcliff. Neither of her parents is interested in their children as youngsters, so Aline has lots of freedom. She spends most of it with an orphaned young stablehand, John McKenna.
In their late teens, Aline and McKenna’s friendship has become passionate. Their private moments are increasingly intimate, but McKenna understands they are irrevocably separated by their stations. Knowing she’s destined for an empty arranged marriage like her parents’, Aline begs to give her virginity to McKenna, but he steadfastly refuses.
Eventually, of course, their relationship is discovered. Aline’s enraged father vows to hound McKenna into an early and miserable grave, until Aline makes a deal with him. She will send McKenna away so emphatically that he will never want to darken their door again. In return, her father is to find him an apprenticeship and let him get on with his life unmolested. The earl agrees – although I wondered why he would. He could have destroyed McKenna easily, and had nothing to gain from this bargain.
Eventually, McKenna gains wealth and success in the New World. Fate brings him and Aline back together, after her father has died, and McKenna is out for revenge against the woman whose callous rejection wounded him so deeply.
Let me tell you what made the first seven-eighths of this book such a joy to read. The relationship between Aline and McKenna as adults is complex and interesting. Each has secrets from the other, but has good reasons for not being totally honest. They circle each other warily, although it soon becomes obvious to the reader that their adult feelings, both physical and emotional, are even stronger than their youthful infatuation.
Even though each has reason to believe their relationship cannot be a permanent one, they simply can’t keep their hands off each other. Their physical relationship made the book hot, and their determined rationalizations and justifications made the book emotionally engaging.
There is also a captivating subplot involving Aline’s younger sister, Livia. Ruined following the death of her fiancé when it became apparent that they’d anticipated their vows, Livia is tempted out of her reclusive existence by McKenna’s business partner.
Both romantic relationships are very passionate, yet Ms. Kleypas manages to keep things fresh. Somehow, she avoids the ‘burn-out’ effect that sometimes afflicts books with lots of sexual encounters.
So, imagine the depth of my frustration and disappointment when I discover that Aline is willing to throw everything away to keep the last of her secrets. It’s not even a good secret; it’s a pathetic loser of a secret, but she’ll sacrifice McKenna’s happiness as well as her own rather than reveal it. Then, to make matters worse, her brother shows up and in just a few minutes points out that keeping this secret is childish, stupid, selfish, cowardly and just generally beyond stupidity. Poof! Epiphany! She must find McKenna before it’s too late and he’s gone forever.
And you know what McKenna says? “You’ve put us both through hell for no reason!” My feelings exactly. And do you know how I felt, knowing that I’d been put through all this for no reason? I felt totally cheated. Then, to add insult to injury, I find that the sum total of Aline’s apology, for everything, is a single “I’m sorry.” Gee, that was satisfying. If the hero had put the heroine through all that for no reason, he would have been expected to grovel for the rest of his natural days.
So here’s my advice. Read and enjoy this book to the bottom of page 337. Then put the book down and imagine a really good, satisfying ending. I guarantee you’ll do better than the author.
-- Judi McKee