With the Lights On
Jackie Ashenden is great at writing hot sex scenes, and you’ll find those aplenty in With the Lights On. Unfortunately even a sexy romance needs a plot, and with too much narration and too little momentum, With the Lights On is a low-watt bulb.
Under the name Honey, Maggie makes a living working as an escort, providing both emotional company and physical companionship – yes, sex with clients is on the table. Her favorite client is Trajan, who has booked her for one last night. She didn’t even check the message before heading to his apartment. The short version of her character description is that she’s a healer and a martyr, which is a perfect match for Trajan.
Trajan is slowly losing his sight to the eye disease retinitis pigmentosa. He originally hired Honey for practice at navigating social interactions without vision – things like serving drinks, preparing a memorized recipe, and holding conversations. However, over their time together, he’s come to want more. And this night, he’s hired Honey for sex – which Honey didn’t realize.
The pacing of this book is just… off. They think, they talk, they boink, they talk, Maggie finds out Trajan’s secret, they talk some more, they boink some more, they think some more, the story resolves. I had no urgency to keep going.
The first few chapters provide endless info-dumps about how Maggie and Trajan have formed a mystical bond beyond escort and client. Trajan notes that “Maggie opened up to me, revealing personal things about herself, things I sensed she didn’t usually talk about with a client.” Maggie says she’d never thought of Trajan like her other clients, “because he wasn’t like them.”
But all of this is told, not shown. We don’t see any other client interactions, or have flashbacks to early Maggie and Trajan. We just have one night, marked by dialogue, endless introspection, and lots of melodramatic narration about Maggie “joining him in the darkness” and whatnot. It’s especially frustrating because the book is only 160 pages. Yes, this is standard for the Dare line – but so much word count is wasted on navel-gazing that you could have freed up entire chapters for other scenes, which would have given this relationship some oomph. As it was, I felt like I was reading an extended epilogue for an established secondary couple from a previous book.
Trajan’s tragic backstory is that because of his fading vision, he ended up in a car accident that severely injured his passenger. He says that the lesson he learned is that he has to both “refuse to give into fear” and “take control,” but he then lives in a way that is completely dominated by his fear that people will find out that he has RP, and gives the disease complete control over his life. I’m not saying there is any right or wrong way to respond to a life-changing diagnosis; I’m just saying that with all the self-psychoanalysis the book indulges in, Trajan ought to notice this.
And the idea that he became a self-made billionaire – in engineered textiles, no less – while being 75% a recluse and legally blind is a lot. I also never really understood why he and Maggie take it for granted that it’s impossible to have a relationship moving forward, except as a plot obstacle.
The book picks up in the middle because that’s when the sex happens, and Ashenden is good at sex scenes. There’s a balance between dialogue and action, and the characters remain present as their personalities in the scenes. I was surprised to find anal sex here. I haven’t been keeping up with the Dare line, but I don’t recall reading anal sex in Harlequins before.
One last annoyance: Maggie refuses Trajan’s offer to support her through medical school. Apparently him paying her for company and sex is fine when they are not dating, but accepting the financial support of someone if you’re actually in a relationship with them is a no-go. Well, maybe, but… I think that taking a medical school scholarship when you’re dating a billionaire is kind of a dick move. There are people out there who actually need that money, Maggie.
I’m not a fan of angst when it’s used as a euphemism for ‘wallowy self-indulgence’. Ashenden’s knack for sex scenes is what brings this book back up to the C range, but I still wouldn’t recommend it.