Asking for Trouble
Asking for Trouble delivered exactly the fix this gothic romance junkie has been craving lately. The second in Harlequin Blaze’s gothic promotion “It Was A Dark and Sexy Night…”, Leslie Kelly’s entry ably combines the traditional spooky elements of a gothic with the modern sensibilities of a more contemporary tale. The result is a highly enjoyable read I ate up like a starving person.
On the prototypical dark and stormy night, grad student Lottie Santori arrives at Seaton House, a legendary hotel located on a mountain above the town of Trouble, Pennsylvania. The now-closed hotel is infamous for being the stomping grounds of Joseph Zangara, a serial killer who preyed on women from the town below decades earlier. Despite being convicted of fifteen murders and suspected of more, Zangara isn’t as well-known as many other serial murderers, and Lottie’s professor hired her to do research on the man and his crimes. But when she gets there, the door is answered by a forbidding man with a frightening resemblance to the long-dead killer.
Simon Lebeaux inherited the hotel from his uncle four months earlier. He had no idea of the arrangements the professor made with his uncle and doesn’t want her there. Recovering from an incident in his recent past, he has his own scars, both literal and figurative, and just wants to be left alone. Meanwhile, strange things seem to be happening at the hotel, enough to make him wonder whether the place is haunted or if he’s losing his mind. When Lottie connives to make him let her stay, she too is drawn into the mysteries of the hotel and its dark, sexy owner.
Leslie Kelly is a hit-or-miss author for me, but I enjoyed this book from start to finish. The premise is classic, and she perfectly supplies the delicious atmosphere of a gothic story. I read with growing delight as the early chapters established the brooding hero, the eerie setting, and the infamy of the serial killer. There are plenty of effectively creepy moments as the characters contend with the increasingly unsettling circumstances that face them.
A big reason I enjoyed the story so much was its heroine. At first glance, Lottie is the typical undersexed Blaze heroine (the result of being the only girl in a family with five older brothers) eager to get some. But she’s so much more than that. A far cry from the tremulous gothic heroine of old, she’s a capable, determined woman ready to face the obstacles that cross her path head-on. She doesn’t back down from Simon, slowly uncovering his secrets and drawing him out. She stands up to those who would badmouth him. She asks all the right questions and investigates the mystery herself. Sure, she has a couple of goofy moments, but on the whole she’s strong, spirited, smartmouthed and good-hearted, a winning combination for me. Frankly, she may be the most sheerly likable romance heroine I’ve encountered in a while. Her blunt statement to Simon at the end of Chapter Twelve delighted me to no end.
The chapters seen from Lottie’s perspective are told in first-person (those in Simon’s P.O.V. are written in third), and she has a lively, effervescent voice that’s a little lighter than might be expected in a gothic. Normally I would wonder if that would dilute the story, making it too light when it should be dark. It works perfectly here, contrasting the angst of Simon’s chapters and making her a vivid character.
Simon is a good tormented hero in the classic mold. Even when he’s rude or tries to push Lottie away, he remains a sympathetic figure as the author makes us understand what he’s feeling. The book is set in the same small town as the author’s recent Here Comes Trouble, which vexed my colleague Lea Hensley so much I was a little worried (especially since I’m not a fan of wacky small town hijinks myself). Fortunately, the town and its denizens are kept firmly in the background. For the most part, this is a two-person story focusing on Lottie and Simon. The satisfying love story nicely portrays the evolving relationship and growing feelings between them, leading to a great ending. When the story does branch out a little more, the few small town folks that appear are used in an unobtrusive manner.
The mystery is good, a well-developed puzzle whose secrets are slowly revealed. Blazes are sometimes criticized for being all sex with too little story. That’s not the case here. The story is strong. There were times I thought the writing could be tighter, especially when it came to Lottie’s chapters. She’s a chatty narrator with a tendency to go on and on sometimes. If she was someone I was listening to in person, I would have been hard pressed to resist doing the “speed it up” hand gesture every once in a while to urge her to cut to the chase. Even so, I read the book in one sitting.
I was going to give this book a flat B, but frankly, I enjoyed it so much more than most romance novels I’ve read this year I’m bumping it up to the B+. It’s not deep. It’s not earthshattering. It’s not perfect. It’s just fun. Considering how seldom I’ve been able to say that about a romance novel, particularly a series romance, this year, I figure it’s worth the upgrade. I don’t know if anyone else will feel the same way, but for me, Asking for Trouble was a blast.