Series romances are intended to have a certain amount of sameness, and most don’t have a distinctive style and voice all their own. Unmarked Man does, and it’s one reason it stands out from the crowd. The rough-edged characters and offbeat writing style come closer to capturing the tone of a mainstream crime thriller than most romance novels, making for a nicely different story.
A desperate phone call sends Cissy Spagnola back to the neighborhood in upstate New York where she grew up; her mother and sister have disappeared. Her sister Jo Jo is a drug addict whose disappearance may not be so unexpected, and her stepfather claims her mother left him. The absence of her clothes and personal belongings makes his story seem plausible, but Cissy isn’t buying it. Her mother is a devout Catholic who stuck with her lousy marriage this long because of her faith, and Cissy doesn’t believe she would bail on it now. She certainly wouldn’t have left her cherry red 1950 Thunderbird behind sitting in the driveway.
Taking the car, Cissy goes straight to the police. Nick Fiore is the last person she expects – or wants – to see. Once the neighborhood bad boy, he’d cozied up to every girl on the block, and Cissy had lost her virginity to him. Now he’s a police detective, though not much more respectable than the last time she saw him. He wants her to leave the investigation to him, but Cissy isn’t the type to sit around waiting for answers.
She plunges right back into the old neighborhood, including the bars her sister was known to frequent, in search of the truth. Before long, she starts receiving threats telling her to go home, dead bodies begin to turn up, and Nick is chasing her around town trying to keep her out of trouble, something easier said than done.
I read one of Scalera’s Harlequin American titles a few years ago and found her writing style occasionally made the story confusing and hard to follow. This is her first Harlequin Intrigue, and her offbeat voice works well here. It’s so different from the typical romance that I initially set the book down after the first few pages, put off by the stylized tone. But after a while it grew on me and I appreciated it more as the book went along. It has a gritty, more mainstream style, befitting the story’s hard-edged characters. Scalera still has a tendency toward the occasional awkward line (“Front yards were a stoop flush to cement.” Huh?), but she also delivers plenty that are right on target (“He looked at her so long her insides hummed like a hive.”) A good example of whether it will work for a reader is Cissy’s description of how eager she was her first time with Nick:
“Last virgin on the block had held no honor in her neighborhood. Nor any pleasure for a curious teenager whose closest run-in with titillation had been when she confused which orifice between her legs should be plugged with a tampon.”
That’s also a good indication of the types of characters these are. So many romance heroes and heroines come across as rather whitebread, that certain bland uniformity where even most of the “streetwise” heroes and heroines seem to be playacting more than anything else. Strip away their specific backstories and they’re fairly sanitized characters underneath. That isn’t the case here. The book takes place in a tough inner city neighborhood and the setting is very much a part of the characters and who they are as people. Cissy and Nick aren’t just playacting. They have the attitude down.
Cissy’s childhood nickname is “Scrappy Cissy,” and it fits. She’s tough, she’s mouthy, she’s refreshingly strong-willed. She can be reckless and foolhardy at times in her search for answers, but she’s likable because she’s a fighter. Her past wasn’t all sweetness and light, but she never gives in to self-pity. Here’s her answer to Nick’s question of whether she’s married:
“Once. Until he broke my jaw. So much for true love.” She shrugged. “Like mother, like daughter, huh?”
He shook his head, telling her no. Mercifully the black of his eyes stayed hard, flat. She wouldn’t accept otherwise from him.
“Well, I did take the Limoges vase we’d gotten from his Aunt Georgine as a wedding present and gave him a concussion.”
“You always did have a classy way about you.” He smiled, a compatriot, and she remembered why she’d let him get into her pants.
Not exactly the usual bland hero and heroine, are they?
To be honest, I don’t know if the book is that successful as a romance. This is very much the heroine’s story, driven by her actions all the way. Nick only appears in relation to her and while they do have sizzling chemistry, the love story is something of a subplot. It’s more a mystery/crime drama, one where the villain’s a little too obvious to boot. Even so, I enjoyed it too much to care. It’s a triumph of style, tone and interesting characters. Approached as the usual series romance, Unmarked Man doesn’t fit the mold. As a cool, quirky, different sort of story, this is one fun read.