Desert Isle Keeper
Lions and Lace
When I came back to romance in the early ’90’s, finding a good read was something of a hit-or-miss proposition for me. Back then, there was nothing like this site to help me find a well-written romance, so I spent a lot of time in used-book stores, picking up anything that looked remotely interesting. Needless to say, I made all too many bad choices, but every now and then I’d stumble across a real treasure. This book is one of those gems.
Alice Diana Van Alen is the toast of Knickerbocker society, born into the illustrious Four Hundred of New York’s elite. At nineteen, she seems to have everything: position, beauty, intelligence, and scads of money. Yet there’s a huge void in her life, and all the trappings of her privileged existence only serve to remind her that she longs for a simpler way of living, one that will assuage the loneliness and grief that are at the core of her soul. Three years ago, Alana’s parents perished in a fire, leaving her virtually alone in the world. Now she harbors a terrible secret, one she’ll do anything to protect.
Self-made multimillionaire Trevor Byrne Sheridan (known as the Predator of Wall Street) becomes incensed after the Knickerbockers snub his sister Mara by refusing to attend her debut. He seeks revenge the only way he knows how: he ruins them financially, each and every one of them, including Alana, whose fortune is controlled by her shady uncle Baldwin Didier. Not sharing her peers’ anti-Irish prejudice, Alana had every intention of going to the party, but Didier struck her and locked her in her room to keep her from ruining his standing in society. When he literally throws her at Sheridan’s feet, she tries to explain this to the Irishman, but Trevor scoffs at her, telling her that if society won’t accept his sister, he’ll see society reduced to nothing.
Alana makes the mistake of informing her nemesis that one must be born or marry into the Four Hundred, and an idea takes hold in him, one that she is powerless to dislodge: if he can’t go back and correct his birth, he can marry well – he’ll marry her. As distasteful as the notion is to her, Alana is forced to accept, since marriage to him is literally the offer she can’t refuse. She can keep her secret, and she’ll be assured of the money that she needs to maintain it. Trevor agrees not to meddle in her life more than necessary, and promises that the marriage will be annulled once Mara is wed. The more time she spends with her husband, however, the less certain Alana is that dissolving the union is what she really wants. There’s something in him, something feral and primitive and basic, that calls out to her. If she makes the mistake of falling in love with him, can Alana ever be sure that Trevor will drop his own prejudices and do the same?
There are two main questions the story raises: how far will a man go to seek revenge without losing his own soul? And what is a woman willing to do in order to attain both security and happiness? For Alana, it seems that she must choose between the two, and the longer she keeps hiding her burden from Trevor, the more impossible the choice becomes. Trevor is deeply distrustful of his wife: first, because she’s a Knickerbocker, one who he’s convinced loathes him and “his kind,” and second, because he knows she’s hiding something. But what? The longer she refuses, the stronger that distrust grows, and the greater his resolve to get to the bottom of the matter, even if it destroys any hope of a shared future.
I love this book for a number of reasons. First of all, the conflict between Trevor and Alana is a strong one, and McKinney does a terrific job of laying it out for the reader. Every step of the way, Alana makes a decision that she thinks will take care of at least part of her problem, only to find that instead of making things easier, the decision has complicated her life and drawn her closer to Trevor. For his part, Trevor is so focused on getting his revenge that he denies what it’s doing to him, and his relationship with Alana, until it’s almost too late.
Secondly, there’s a great deal of tension between Alana and Trevor. From the first, each is drawn to the other – Alana’s more honest in admitting it to herself, and in admitting that while some of it’s sexual, more of it is emotional, and she doesn’t know how to handle it. Trevor tries to kid himself that it’s merely lust, and goes out of his way to prove that to Alana and to himself. He’s convinced that his Irish Catholic roots and poor upbringing are repulsive to her, and he throws their differences in her face constantly, stubbornly denying her protestations to the contrary. He’s so blinded by his quest that he can’t see that she admires him from the start, that she empathizes with his attempts to protect his family.
McKinney draws a picture of a very complex man, and she manages to do it without once writing from Trevor’s point of view. We come to know him by his actions, his gestures, his words, what others perceive of him, but never through his thoughts. Not counting stories told in the first person, this is only the second romance hero I’ve run across like this (the other being the Duke of Avon in Heyer’s These Old Shades, another of my keeper books). It’s a very difficult task, and McKinney does an admirable job of it. If you have a thing for tortured heroes, Trevor’s the man for you.
Alana is completely believable, never once acting outside the logic of her personality. The reader always understands why she does what she does. The secondary characters are a delight, from Trevor’s ne’er-do-well brother Eagan (who enjoys center stage for a moment, in a touching story of his own) and their sister Mara, charming, sweet, not totally naive but still innocent, to a domestic staff that includes a charmingly meddlesome butler and a faithful lady’s maid. Alana’s uncle is evil without being an over-the-top caricature, and McKinney rounds out the cast with a warts-and-all portrait of Caroline Astor, the historical figure who ruled the Four Hundred with an iron fist – properly gloved, of course.
I was completely immersed in the world of Old New York, from the spacious mansions of Fifth Avenue and the rarified atmosphere of Delmonico’s, to the despair and squalor of the Lower East Side. There’s a real feel for the period, with lots of historical detail. Make no mistake: this is not a quick, easy read. A complex, multilayered plot, deep characterizations, and elegant writing add up to an engrossing read. Lions and Lace is unhappily out of print now, so you’ll have to hunt for it online or at secondhand stores and yard sales. It’s worth it, though. It’s proof that sometimes, if you dig hard enough in a gold mine, you hit pay dirt.