Playing at Love
by Jennifer Taylor
(Harl. Romance #418, $3.50, G) ISBN 0-373-17417-7
Lounging in my recliner in the living room, I can look into the kitchen and see the calendar on the wall. I found this quite comforting as I read Playing at Love; it was reassuring to know that it only felt like I'd been sucked into a time warp.

It is still 1999, and not somewhere back in the early 1970s. Back then, it was much more common to have books with powerful, older, angry alpha Neanderthals and young innocents who seemed perfectly content to be dragged around by the hair. Besides, I was in junior high, and there was something rather romantic about having some masterful older man with all the answers to rely on. I'm older and hopefully wiser now.

While I am all for equal pay for equal work, etc, I've never claimed to be a feminist. I believe that men are men and women are women, with distinct and equally valuable roles. Why, you ask, do I bring this up?

So that when I tell you that the type of stereotypical verbiage found in Playing at Love is insulting to any thinking woman, you will not assume that I am affronted because of any political agenda. You don't have to be a feminist to find this story offensive. It's this type of tale that has kept the romance industry from garnering respect as a legitimate form of entertainment – the type of book that non-romance readers assume all romances are like.

This book was first printed in England in 1994, and is just now being released in North America. I'm amazed (and embarrassed) that Harlequin would even publish a story such as this in these enlightened times. Well, they are celebrating five decades of publishing, after all ... Perhaps this book is meant to be a throwback to an earlier era.

Louise Carter is a nurse, presumably in her early twenties. I couldn't find any specific ages for the characters. She's won a contest, and come over from England to enjoy an all-expenses-paid vacation in Florida. Wyatt Lord is the man in the hotel room next door. The hotel caters primarily to the older, professional crowd – they are the only ones "under 50" in the place. He's very wealthy and powerful, probably mid-to-late 30s, with vast holdings in hotels and real estate (think Donald Trump).

He's also extremely bitter because of a traumatic experience in childhood, and regards all women as money-grubbing leeches. When he misunderstands an overheard conversation or two, he's more than willing to lump Louise into the "money-grubbing" category. Louise doesn't realize until later why he thinks so little of her. By the time she figures it out, she decides she's not going to explain the mistake to him... besides, he wouldn't listen anyway.

Through a series of events that defies logic, our intrepid Louise finds herself spending the night in Wyatt's room. Neither planned for this occurrence, but it turns out to be fortuitous for Wyatt. It seems he's in the middle of an important business deal, and the daughter of the other businessman is making a nuisance of herself. Who should come knocking on the door and find Louise in her jammies and Wyatt in a bath towel? You guessed it – Carling, the nuisance.

Wyatt introduces Louise as his fiancée, demonstrating to Carling that he isn't interested in a family merger. Louise is then expected to come with Wyatt to Carling's family home for a week or so, while Wyatt and her father finalize the business deal.

Louise is outraged, and refuses to play along. Wyatt overrules her objections, and enlists her cooperation through a combination of bribery and blackmail that wouldn't impress a thinking person, but seems to work quite adequately on Louise. And in moments when logic does begin to surface, Wyatt simply kisses her senseless until the moment passes.

"He let her go, and Louise fell back against the seat and turned away to stare blankly out of the window through eyes misted with tears of rage. She hated him! Hated and despised everything he stood for. He was cold and ruthless and arrogant and ... and disturbingly attractive, awakening feelings she'd never felt before!"

Yeah right. The man spends the entire time being verbally abusive, regularly bringing her to tears. Additionally, every time she says or does something he objects to, he grabs her roughly, backs her into a corner and subjects her to "bruising kisses" until she just can't help but respond and kiss him back. He locks her in rooms, forcing her to stay with him, so he can "keep an eye on her."

When she gets "shrill and hysterical," he slaps her across the face. Maybe she's appeased and forgiving when he kisses away her tears. I wasn't. I was furious. But don't pity her too much – Louise's behavior is often childish and unacceptable, as well.

Other authors have used the tortured alpha male with great success. This attempt was a dismal failure. Our alleged "hero" had no redeeming qualities to save him. He was a jerk on the first page, and remained a jerk on the last page. The purported "heroine" forgave him everything, blithely accepted his abuse, and cheerfully allowed him to run roughshod over her. She was willing to give up anything, in order to prove her love. Some happy ever after ending. This wasn't romance – this was dysfunction.

Normally I am smiling when I finish a book. This time, I was angry. Hopefully no impressionable teens will read this. I'd hate to think there were any young girls out there who might find this abusive relationship to be even remotely romantic.

--Diane Grayson

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