At the Back Fence Issue #313

August 11, 2008

From the Desk of Laurie Likes Books:

My Latest Fictional Crushes (or When Honor Is Sexy)

Click edit button to change this text.It’s hard to believe, but after spending much of 2008 lusting over J.D. Robb’s Roarke, I’ve got some new crushes. The first is Lord Hayden Rothwell, hero of Madeline Hunter’s 2006 release, The Rules of Seduction. I read the book on Saturday and loved it; it’s my sixth Desert Isle Keeper of the year (reading has been very, very good to me in 2008). There’s much to love in this story of a well-born woman of reduced circumstances who, after succumbing to the passion she feels for the very same man she blames for destroying her prospects and forcing her cousins (Rose and Tim) out of their home and into poverty, agrees to marry him.

What the violet-eyed Alexia Welbourne doesn’t know for most of the book is that Timothy Longworth, her cousin, got off easy; had Hayden Rothwell gone public or to the authorities over the money Longworth embezzled from the bank he co-owns, cousin Tim would surely be in prison…or worse. Instead, because of a debt of honor to Longworth’s now-dead older brother Bernard, Hayden works behind the scenes with the bank’s other owner to repay those who were defrauded. He also promises not to reveal the truth of the matter. Tim, a weak man at best and a morally corrupt thief at worst, lies about the situation. Although Hayden, who manages his family’s considerable fortune, remains invested in the bank to maintain stability (during a period when many banks failed in England), Tim lets it be known that his ruin is the direct result of Hayden capriciously removing the Rothwell fortune.

It’s against this backdrop of suspicion, distrust, and out-and-out dislike from Alexia’s perspective that a relationship develops. At first what sets her apart is that she speaks frankly. At one point early on Alexia tells Hayden that among her limited options are becoming a governess, a milliner, or a soiled dove. Then, after he finagles her a position in his new house as governess to his cousin and companion to his aunt, he can’t seem to stay away from her, although he knows he should. Not only does she blame him for the fall from grace of the Longworth family, she believes that Bernard Longworth would have married her had he lived…and Hayden knows otherwise. A sexual attraction between the two is too strong to contain, and when Alexia discovers that she wasn’t the only woman on the receiving end of Bernard’s attentions, a moment of comfort from Hayden turns into the loss of her virginity on the floor of the attic.

Alexia doesn’t regret the loss of her virginity, but realizes that were she not a lowly governess, Hayden would not have taken advantage of her. She makes plans to leave his family’s employment for full-time millinery work, and when he waylays her carriage, assumes he’s going to ask her to be his mistress. Although it seems she’s right, he instead asks her to marry him. She weighs the pros and cons – he doesn’t love her…well, she doesn’t love him, either; marriage to Hayden would mean financial security, but she’d also lose Rose and Tim’s affections – and agrees.

Both begin their marriage with eyes wide open. Alexia’s friend Phaedra, a bohemian and scandalous young woman, informs her that Hayden has all of his prospective mistresses examined by his physician before taking up with them. She expects no warmth from the coldly deliberate man he often presents himself to be. And while he believes Alexia will be enough in the bedroom to satisfy him, he plans to keep his emotions disengaged; he watched his father make his mother’s life miserable because she loved another man. And he has a failsafe…when his emotions seem to be getting the better of him, he retreats in his brain, creating mathematical theories.

Other than the math, on the surface Hayden seems a fairly typical historical romance hero. But he’s so much more, there’s so much nuance in his characterization that I fell in love with him. He tries to do the right thing, always has, except for an unfortunate period after his father died. It’s only with Alexia that his rigid moral code fails him. He contemplates her conquest, he engineers meetings between them, he has her followed. But it doesn’t take long for him to do the “right thing” because that’s his thing…doing the right thing.

It doesn’t hurt that he’s tall, dark-haired, blue-eyed, and gorgeous. I liked that he was very nearly obsessed with Alexia – who freely admitted that her violet eyes were her only outstanding feature – early on, even though he hadn’t a clue. And I thought it intriguing that it was only through sex with Alexia that a chink in his armor appeared, particularly since he was such a dominant force in the marriage bed, and because his reputation was that of a mechanically gifted but ice cold lover.

Most of all, though, his sense of honor slayed me. Not only did he do his best to save the bank his one-time friend owned, he allowed himself to be maligned because he’d given his word. He accepted that Alexia – and others – believed he calculatingly destroyed the bank and would not set the record straight. He didn’t tell Alexia the truth about Bernard because he knew it would hurt her, even though it might make him look better by comparison. And when, at the end of the book, he reveals his love for her without knowing how deep her feelings are for him, he allows a situation to play out that might result in her leaving him.

One of only two “selfish” acts in terms of the bank debacle is his forbidding Alexia to bring Rose, Tom, and their troubles into the marriage bed. Hayden knows that what they share between the sheets is remarkable, and while Alexia may have been an innocent, she realizes his sexual mastery of her may be the one thing that makes her marriage livable. And yet, by making that a rule of the house, he subconsciously guarantees that their relationship will only be about sex. Slowly, though, Alexia breaks through that chink in his armor; the first night that they actually sleep in the same bed is one of immense comfort to both. And while Hayden knows that, he informs his wife that the next time he’s in a similarly bad mood, she really ought to stay away.

The other occurs when he goes on a “math bender” for three days and nights and Alexia doesn’t know where he is, what he’s doing…or who he might be doing. She goes to his brother Elliot and asks that he get a message to Hayden about her leaving town to visit her cousins and instead he takes her to Hayden’s office in the City, where he’s as hung over on mathematics as an alcoholic with an empty fifth of whiskey. Although neither realizes it, it’s a revelatory moment for both. He insists on accompanying her to the country to visit Rose and Tim, and during the carriage ride each think about their relationship, how it’s changed, and how comforted they feel as a result. Right before Alexia steps out of the carriage, he puts his hand on hers for a long moment, then gives her over to the footman. At that moment she realizes on what precarious ground she stands. She makes a conscious effort during that visit not to malign her husband.

As terrific a heroine Alexia is, I don’t fall in love with romances because of their heroines. I fall in love because of the heroes, and I fell hard here. That tends to be my reaction to heroes who combine strength, intelligence and honor, as well as the guarantee of a lifetime of terrific sex. If it seems I’m harping on that [again], it’s because of its importance to the story. The love scenes are wickedly delicious, to be sure, but they are never gratuitous. It’s not as though I’m never up for a little gratuitous literary nookie, but when it’s actually critical to the storyline, it’s all the better.

I realized Saturday night that rather than finishing the ATBF column I’d planned, I’d so much rather be talking about yummy heroes that I took the chance and emailed Madeline Hunter to see if, on really short notice, she could write about Hayden for me. She did..

Your email started me down memory lane. It has been a while since I wrote that book, and even longer since I first conceived it. So I have been reflecting on how I first saw Hayden and how his character developed during the months I was writing the story.

I know that from the start I wanted him to be this very confident man, and not a bad boy at all. I saw him as brilliant, not very friendly, and comfortable in his skin even if the world misunderstood and considered him somewhat cold. He has the potential to be ruthless, and curbs that inclination with some effort.

Some of the details you mentioned – -such as his having his mistresses see a physician first – emerged in the writing. He permitted no romantic illusions in those arrangements, he wanted no misunderstandings. That uncompromising realism was not always a virtue, of course. Regarding those mistresses, Phaedra Blair remarks that even courtesans like to pretend a little, and he did not permit it.

So here was this man, in control and controlling, who escaped into his mathematical studies whenever strong emotions threatened that control. Then suddenly he begins acting in uncharacteristic ways over the least likely woman. Alexia is not beautiful, not “special”, and a realist herself, but she compels him. She is penniless and vulnerable and he astonishes himself in how dishonorably he behaves with her.

By the time he feels obligated to offer marriage, there are two Haydens. One is the realist only “doing the right thing,” who accepts she will never love him due to his role in her family’s ruin and her eternal love for his old friend. The other is the newly emerged romantic man for whom it matters very much that she accept the proposal and who wants more than a marriage of obligation.

You mentioned two things that were very much part of my initial vision of the book. The first had to do with his honor. I worried that some readers would not accept that he would allow his honor to interfere with his relationship with Alexia. I anticipated mumbles of “big misunderstanding” coming. I even wrote a note on my website about the concept of honor during the book’s time period. In the end, if readers grew frustrated that he did not break his word and blab all to her, they never told me about it.

It is something of a meaningless word now, “honor.” However, I think it is one of the concepts that makes historical romances attractive. The image of a man whose word is gold – even if it requires sacrifices never anticipated when it was given – I personally find that very sexy.

The other comment that you made – that he could only express his feelings through sex – this was at the very core of my vision for the book, for both of them. It was actually the seed of the entire story. I saw a couple in a marriage that was not a love match, living this marriage in which there were significant conflicts, finding common ground and eventually love in physical intimacy. They live two lives. One during the day, which is somewhat formal and marked by estrangement, and one at night, when bonds form that affect them profoundly. Slowly, eventually, the emotions of the night invade the day.

Hayden falls in love first, even though he does not recognize it or put that word on it. It is love that keeps him from telling her that her memories of her past love are nothing more than illusions, even though the memories feed their conflict.

There is a scene well into the book, where Alexia goes to meet with her cousin (who also blames Hayden for their ruin.) At the last moment, Alexia hesitates leaving the carriage. She senses that this meeting will only reinforce the conflict and damage their growing intimacy. Hayden is angry, stern and hard. He resents this rift between them and how this meeting will make it worse, but he also knows this is the only family she has and how she mourns her estrangement from them. When she hesitates, he places her hand in the footman’s, so she will in fact step down and go to see her cousin.

Hayden is a strong man. He is alpha to the very end. But Alexia’s happiness is more important to him than his own pride, and I think that is his appeal.

 Hayden Rothwell now joins a reasonably short list of Heroes I Love. While this next hero isn’t in the same class, he deserves “honorable” mention. Running Wild, Sarah McCarty’s erotic romance anthology, features three werewolves who find their mates during the course of three short stories. The hero who caught my attention was Donovan, a Protector, whose visit to a small Montana town is no vacation. He is there to bring his cousin Wyatt, the town’s sheriff – but also the Pack Alpha (presumptive) – home to assume his pack responsibilities. It’s bitterly cold when Donovan wanders into the local bar with his cousin. They’re enjoying a beer when a woman comes into the bar…on a mission. As she passes, he scents her, and with great interest watches her take a pool cue to a mouthy, drunken pool player. At first Donovan simply watches Lisa Delaney give Buddy the beat-down he deserves for what he did to her sister on her first date, but when she begins to physically tire, he moves in to help her. He grabs the cue and says, “You’ve either got to make the call to kill him, or leave him for the law.” When Wyatt informs him that Buddy’s family bought off the prosecutor, his Protector instincts kick in and he decides he’s going to help her do what she wants to do, hang the consequences.

He feels her hunger for revenge but realizes she’s not got it in her to kill him. Buddy sees her hesitation and begins to advance on Lisa, only to have Donovan back her up, physically:

Another step back and she was almost against Donovan. The heat of her body caressed him from chest to toe in a subtle enticement. He closed the distance between them, reached around, and added his strength to hers. She cast him a shocked look over her shoulder as his chest came up against her back before whipping back around, grabbing the pool stick, and throwing her weight against it. He adjusted the angle slightly, pushing and lifting until Buddy was once again back against the wall, this time dangling on the end of the cue, his smirk gone, his face taking on a blue cast that didn’t bode well for his survival.

“If you want to say something, you might want to get on with it,” Donovan prompted as Lisa hesitated.

“I can handle this.”

“Wasn’t arguing that you couldn’t just thought you might want to get whatever it is said before he passes out.”

She risked another glance at him. For a brief moment her body rested against his, taking his support. The rightness of it sank to his soul. Inside his wolf howled “Mine” so loudly it seemed impossible she didn’t hear.

Shortly thereafter, Lisa’s truck won’t start. Donovan, who’s been watching to make sure Buddy and his pals don’t make trouble in the parking lot, has her pop the hood so he can take a look. He suggests she wait in the truck while he assesses things, but she insists on watching. He takes off his coat and wraps it around her, eventually buttoning her into it. Although he’s as hot as a furnace, she doesn’t want to leave him in the freezing cold without a coat. He refuses to take no for an answer and she thinks to herself that his coat sheltered her “from the cold the same way he’d sheltered her from the repercussions of her violence earlier.”

When he “suggests” that she wait in Wyatt’s car, she argues with him. His domineering nature isn’t going down so well. Then he realizes that her feet are so cold they’re hurting her, sweeps her off her feet, and sets her on the seat of the truck. He moves in-between her legs so that their bodies are touching, and when she asks what he’s doing, he leans in and tells her he’s staking his claim, then takes her mouth in a passionate kiss that goes on and on..

Yes, McCarty’s writing is a whole lot less subtle than Hunter’s, but what can I say? Donovan also does it for me. He knows what he wants – and when destiny has him by the short hairs – stands up for a woman in distress, backs her up physically, then spends the remainder of the story protecting Lisa and her family. That is, when he’s not curling her toes with pleasure.

I’ve been on a Sarah McCarty glom recently, and all of her heroes – whether Western or werewolf – are cut of the same cloth. Utterly masculine, dominant, yet totally devoted to their heroines and willing to endure anything to assure their happiness. All are honorable men, even if their codes of honor are more than a little Old Testament, and while a contemporary woman would no doubt chafe as a result of their protectiveness, the fictional fantasy of it works for me. As a modern woman I might say that sometimes I want a man to listen to me rather than trying to solve my problems, but having an honorable and strong man simply step in…and up to the plate without question or hesitation…can work as well, particularly in Romance Land.

Hayden Rothwell and Donovan may be centuries – and species – apart, but I love them both. Honor is sexy. I look forward to hearing about your thoughts on the Honorable Hero and other heroes you’ve recently come to love, and why they got to you. And if you’d also care to write about Madeline Hunter’s [or Sarah McCarty’s] heroes, so much the better.

TTFN, as Tigger said to Winnie the Pooh,
Laurie Likes Books, with Madeline Hunter