In another of our occasional series in which we discuss the merits – or lack thereof – of fictional heroes and heroines, AAR staffers turn their attention to Alex Markov of Kiss an Angel by Susan Elizabeth Phillips.

The book taps into the classic “arranged marriage” trope. The two protagonists, Daisy and Alex, are blackmailed into marriage by a third party: Daisy’s dad. Daisy agrees in order to avert legal trouble and avoid prison. For Alex Markov, this was his year for paying off big debts, first with his deathbed promise to Owen Quest to take the circus out for its last season under the Quest name, and then by agreeing to marry Max’s daughter. In all these years Max had never asked one thing of him as repayment for having saved Alex’s life, but when he’d finally gotten around to it, he’d asked for a doozy.

Although both are forced, there is no equality of power. Alex has – and uses – the upper hand. While he maintains his financial freedom and chooses the course their life takes, Daisy is bankrupt and essentially has to go along with him or go to prison. When they’ve been married less than half an hour, Alex forces her to quit smoking by using a magic trick to make her cigarettes burst into flames every time she lights one. AAR’s Maggie says, “I’m anti-smoking too, but virtually setting someone on fire for lighting up seems a tad excessive.” That pretty much sets the tone for the relationship – when he isn’t yelling at her or bossing her around, he publicly humiliates her and makes things difficult for her. Here are some prime examples of those moments.

He accuses her of being a thief, even though she begs him to trust her:

He took a step closer, and she backed against the kitchen counter, the place where only a few hours ago he had kissed her with such passion. “I can’t let you do this,” she said desperately. “We spoke vows, Alex. Don’t turn your back on them.” She knew she was making herself look guiltier in his eyes, but marriages were built on trust, and if he destroyed that, they wouldn’t have a chance. “Let’s get this over with.” She moved sideways along the counter. “I can’t let you touch me. Please take my word for it! I didn’t steal the money! I’ve never stolen anything in my life!” “Stop it, Daisy. You’re only making it worse for yourself.”

She saw he wasn’t going to give in. With a singleness of purpose that frightened her, he backed her against the storage closet. She gazed numbly up at him. “Don’t do it,” she whispered. “Please. I’m begging you.” For a moment he froze. Then his palms cupped her sides… he drew them down over her waist and hips, then moved up to feel her stomach, her back, the breasts he had cupped so gently in his hands only hours earlier. She shut her eyes in revulsion as he slipped them between her legs. “You should have believed me,” she whispered when he’d finished. He took a step away, and his eyes were troubled. “If you didn’t have it on you, why did you fight me?” “Because I wanted you to trust me. I’m not a thief.”

Then he says vicious things to her when she gets pregnant. Mind you, this takes place after they have known each other for months and she has been nothing but kind and good to him:

“You want me to have an abortion?” she whispered. “Don’t look at me like I’m some kind of monster! Don’t you dare look at me like that! I told you from the beginning how I felt about this. I spilled my guts trying to make you understand. But, as usual, you decided you knew best. Even though you don’t have a trustworthy bone in your goddamn body, you decided you knew best!” “Don’t talk to me like that.” “I trusted you!” His mouth twisted into a snarl as the first strains of the balalaika drifted into the night, the cue for his entrance. “I actually believed you were taking those pills, but all the time you were lying to me.” She shook her head and fought against the bile rising in her throat. “I’m not getting rid of this baby.” “The hell you’re not! You’ll do what I tell you.”

Then when Alex finds out the pregnancy wasn’t caused by negligence or deliberate action on Daisy’s part, he threatens to ruin her life if she won’t go back to him. ‘Cause that’s what you do when you’re in love, strip the other person of choices:

“Oh, I want the baby very much. Just because I acted like a bastard when you told me the news doesn’t mean I didn’t come to my senses. I know you don’t want to go with me, but for now, you don’t have any other choice. You’re endangering yourself and the baby, Daisy, and I can’t let you do that.” He could see that he’d found her weakest spot, but she still fought him. “You don’t have any say in this.” “I have a say, all right. And I’m going to make sure you and the baby are safe.” Her eyes grew wary. “I’ll play dirty,” he said quietly. “It won’t take me long to find out where you’re working, and I guarantee I’ll make your job disappear.” “You’d do that to me?” “I won’t even hesitate.” Her shoulders slumped, and he knew he’d won, but he felt no satisfaction. “I don’t love you anymore,” she whispered. “I don’t love you at all.” His throat closed. “It’s all right, sweetheart. I love you enough for both of us.”

It’s easy to see this and think our “hero” is a monster, but Alex does have some solid excuses for what he does. He was told Daisy is a spendthrift airhead with a penchant for laziness, trouble and an inability to accept reality, so it’s not really surprising that he has trouble believing her when she says she is none of those things. Daisy does initially behave in a manner which shows she was indulged and spoiled for much of her life. Like most romance heroes, Alex’s own abusive background plays a part in this as well. He was told pride and an ability to stand on your own two feet are the most important traits a person can have and Daisy has neither. For her part, Daisy has no idea how her father got Alex to marry her and believes he is accepting money for doing so. This means the relationship begins with false impressions and without any mutual respect.

There are a lot of great scenes in the book also. Moments over a special dinner or as they are driving from show to show in Alex’s truck that highlight the fact that when left to themselves, when cut off from their baggage, Alex and Daisy are dynamite together. And Alex gives a magnificent, heartfelt grovel at the end of the book.

Here is what AAR staffers had to say regarding the question of whether Alex is a dreamboat or douchebag:

Dabney: He is such a dick.

Caroline: I’m the one who nominated this book for Dreamboat or Douchebag, even though I only read it once and it was over a decade ago. The only thing I remembered about it was telling my friend, “I think I’ve just read a how-to manual for emotional abuse.” Reading Maggie’s recap did not suggest that my memory was inaccurate. I’m going with douchebag.

Maggie B.: I’m a bit ambivalent about Alex. On the one hand, he and Daisy have some fabulous moments together. There is a scene where they are driving and he tries to get her to say a naughty word and they spend the trip bantering back and forth about it – it’s just a sweet, romantic snippet. Then there’s the restaurant incident which I found sexy and hilarious. And he definitely gave good grovel. But he is also a huge, nasty ass in many, many portions of the book.

I’ve found that one of the things with SEP’s writing is her ability to get me to accept characters and situations I would otherwise roll my eyes at. Somehow she can humanize these alphas I would normally want dead and turn them into men whom – well, if I don’t  love them I am at least happy for their HEA. She also takes the ditzy, sweet, sexpot – a character I typically loathe – and makes her a heroine whom I find myself completely rooting for. So while I didn’t like Alex much, I did wind up really enjoying this book and it’s all due to some kind of mojo the author has that makes me buy totally into the most unbelievable scenarios and some downright unlovable characters.

Dabney: He is a dick and I ended up believing that he would be the man Daisy loved. But for so much of the book he’s awful. And–and this is bothersome–I don’t think he’ll ever be an especially nice man. But he is what Daisy really wants and he does love her. He’s a hero I wouldn’t want for myself, but SEP made me believe he’ll be an okay husband to Daisy. So, maybe he’s a dick but I can still buy his happy ending. Not a dreamboat or a douchebag but a dark hero.

Mary: Circus guy, right? Oh, big dick.

Haley: Alex and that whole book are a mixed bag for me. The book is kind of a hot mess (she communicates with a tiger through telepathy?) but I enjoyed it enough to read it twice. Alex is really rough on Daisy but I thought it fit the premise of his assumption of her being a spoiled brat (and she kind of was) and wanting to scare her off. I’m not saying I would want to be Daisy, but I kind of forgive him given that the whole book is over the top.

Did any of you ever read Hawke O’Toole’s Hostage by Sandra Brown? Hawke kidnaps Randi and keeps her and her son prisoner. This isn’t a historical, by the way. He threatens her constantly, she’s miserable, and it takes her breaking down before he turns nice. It was total Stockholm syndrome. Yet I’ve read the book like 5 times and love it.  Brown also wrote Honor Bound that is pretty much the same.

Maggie B: Brown is another author where I have to buy into the crazy to make it work since many of her romances do start out as hostage situations. I know her recent Mean Streak and Lethal both did and yet somehow I found the situation – and books- acceptable rather than reprehensible. In fact, I completely loved Lethal.

Anne Marble: It’s been so long since I read it. I do remember Alex being a jerk. Annoyingly so, and yet I kept reading and reading… I also remember that the big “grovel” was a huge deal because he was so proud. And that it was in the rain. And that another character was upset at Daisy for not accepting the apology right away — and that annoyed me because surely she had reasons to hesitate.

LinnieGayl: I can remember having to put the book down a few chapters in the first time I read this, I hated Alex so much. While initially I thought Daisy was a bit of a ditz, I quickly felt she was basically sweet, loving, and had a huge heart. I also thought she deserved so much better than Alex. But by the time I neared the end I definitely wanted the two of them together. Does this excuse his behavior? Absolutely not. His behavior to Daisy was reprehensible, even after he knew she was a really good person. But somehow, SEP managed to make me care about them as a couple. So yes, I do think he falls on the douchebag side of things, but somehow, I still like the book… or at least the ending. I recently listened to this for the first time, years later. I still disliked Alex in the beginning, but because I knew what was coming, found it much easier to listen to.

Dabney: I think I read somewhere that SEP wrote this with an eye to taking characters from a bodice ripper historical and putting them into a contemporary. Daisy’s a sweet virgin, Alex is the brooding rake, and all the power is, initially his. Daisy changes him and when he loses her he realizes he needs her. If you take their behaviors-ignoring the telepathy with animals thing–they fit right into the outlines of many an 80s historical romance. Knowing that doesn’t make Alex any less cruel, but, it is easier to imagine him as a hero when he’s set in an earlier fictional construct.

The overall AAR verdict: Douchebag, but even douchebags sometimes find their soulmates. What do you say?  Alex Markov: dreamboat or douchebag?

–Caroline Russomanno