The Big Bad Billionaire
I heard there was a new Jackie Ashenden book out in November, and as a newer fan of hers, I jumped at the chance to review it. I haven’t read the earlier books in the series, and though I’m curious about those stories after reading this one, The Big, Bad Billionaire works perfectly fine as a standalone. I’m not a huge fan of contemporary twists on classic fairy tales, and unfortunately, I don’t think it really works here. Though the hunter/prey first portion of the story is strong, the author loses focus in the second half as the big, bad billionaire finally traps his quarry and then has to convince her to stick around. The chemistry is hot, the principals are compelling… but the story just never gels.
Rafael De Santis is obsessed. With lots of things. But on this day, the focus of his obsession is Ella Hart, the one person who showed him affection and love as a child. After his father sent him away because he couldn’t control his son’s explosive, dangerous temper, Rafe spent his formative years living with an uncle who taught him to control his emotions through brutality and abuse. Rafe returned home and spent the past few years enacting his revenge: systematically destroying his father’s life. Firmly in control of his father’s company, wealth, and their ward – Ella Hart – Rafe turns his laser focus on her. Determined to capture Ella’s attention, love and affection by any means possible, Rafe goes on the hunt.
After losing her parents at a young age, Ella has spent a lifetime channeling her grief, loneliness and pain into dance. She has an opportunity to attend a prestigious dance school in Paris, but her finances are held in trust and controlled by the De Santis family. With Cesare De Santis no longer in charge and facing jail time, Ella isn’t sure who to approach for the funds, when the answer to her question arrives in the form of big, bad Rafe De Santis. Despite his compelling good looks and keen intellect, Ella is wary of him, his powerful presence simultaneously thrilling and frightening her.
Ella vaguely remembers Rafe from her childhood, but rumors of his violent, mercurial temper mean she’s kept him at arm’s length. Rafe hates the distance between them and decides to use his position as her guardian to change things. After she stonewalls his attempts at conversation, he offers her an ultimatum: give herself over to him – physically and emotionally – and he’ll give her the money to go to Paris. She defiantly rejects his blackmail attempt (good girl!), but can’t deny she’s drawn to him. After a terse back and forth, she agrees to a date and a kiss in exchange for the money. It’s not even close to all Rafe wants from her, but as much as he hoped to get. Ella is nervous, but if this will get her the money to go to Paris, she’s willing to give him this much.
The first date is a disaster, and sets the tone for what’s to come between Rafe and Ella. She’s the prey, he’s the hunter, and the first half of the book details the chase. I can’t lie – though Rafe seems sexy as hell and his backstory is haunting and sympathetic, I couldn’t like him. He’s a predator through and through, set on dominating and controlling Ella; though Ms. Ashenden works hard to position him as an overprotective, possessive, yet loveable monster, he raises a lot of alarm bells with me. He holds the purse strings and the power in his relationship with Ella and I kept wondering what would have happened if she hadn’t fallen for him. We’ll never know (this is a love story after all), but I have my doubts about a relationship forged in childhood (did I mention he’s older than her and they met when she was two?) and predicated on blackmail. He affectionately calls her a rabbit (because he’s the wolf?), but there’s nothing sweet or innocent about this hunter/prey analogy.
I’m still not sure how I feel about Ella. Her parents died when she was young and she’s spent the balance of her life living with a sick aunt, but essentially raising herself. She’s done a bang-up job so far, and though the loss of her parents was tragic, it hasn’t kept her from doggedly pursuing her dreams. She’s does what she loves – ballet – she has a home and family (member) who cares for her, and she’s wealthy – though she has to rely on the de Santis family to access her money. She’s sharp, smart and focused, but finds herself irresistibly drawn to a possessive and domineering older man, who just happens to have been obsessively fixated on her since she was a child. It alarms her – but not in the ways you might assume. She’s confused and overwhelmed by Rafe and bewildered by her lustful thoughts whenever he’s around. HOWEVER she doesn’t find his pursuit of her creepy, stalkerish (he’s secretly attended every one of her performances since he discovered she was a dancer), or strange. Well, Ella and Ms. Ashenden, I was creeped out enough for all of us.
It’s a cat and mouse (or wolf and rabbit) chase until Ella finally surrenders to Rafe; when they finally give into their passion for each other, it’s intense and frenzied – but not very romantic – and the story (and fairy tale premise) begins to unravel from this point forward. Ella and Rafe embark on a sexual affair, but Ella craves emotional closeness. She’s horrified by what happened during his childhood, but he rebuffs her attempts to help or understand. He regresses to a painful coping mechanism to control his emotions and maintain an icy facade, but he’s a seething, hurt mess who isn’t able to lay himself bare for Ella. He resists the emotional intimacy she demands… until he realizes he’ll lose her if he doesn’t let her in.
I enjoyed The Big, Bad Billionaire, but unfortunately Ms. Ashenden gets hung up on the darker sides of the fairy tale. Rafe is the proverbial big, bad wolf – dangerous, lethal and wicked, but he’s also protective, loyal, and profoundly in love with Ella. Our heroine is similarly flawed; the author spends too long characterizing her as the prey so when Ella finally shows some backbone, it’s too little, too late. That said, despite my issues with the titular big, bad billionaire and his little red riding hood, Ms. Ashenden delivers on what fans have come to expect from her stories – simmering tension, lots of heat and principals who thrive on challenging each other every step of the way to happily ever after.