So here's the thing about Kresley Cole's books: they completely blow my nice, logical grading curve, and the most recent re-issue of the second MacCarrick brothers historical, If You Desire, is no exception. Use whatever tired metaphor you want –" this is where the rubber meets the road, caught between the devil and the deep blue sea –" it all comes out the same in the end. These books are mighty hard for me to grade relative to other books I've reviewed, because every time I clear my mind and wait for the grade to come, all that pumps into my little brain is the word “Fun!,–? except it's more like “Fun!Fun!Fun!Fun!Fun!Fun!Fun!Fun!,–? with not a grade to be found. So finally I decided to take a different tack, asking myself, “Self, is there a grade for fun?–? And as it turns out, there is.
As 27 and counting, Jane Weyland is tired of waiting for Hugh MacCarrick to come back and claim her as his, as his one and only as his wife. Not that she's been wasting away in the meantime. No, Jane has been indulging her freedom in the bawdy antics of the “Weyland Eight,–? a group of female cousins who enjoy scandalous novels, scandalous parties, and in one case, a scandalous affair with the family groom. But still, this independent and forthright woman has been unable to forget the solitary and sensitive Hugh MacCarrick, whose boldness extends to everything but taking Jane in body and in marriage. And she's tired of waiting, especially when the handsome, wealthy, and respectful Freddie Bidworth wants to marry her.
Hugh MacCarrick walked away from Jane ten long years ago, driven by a family prophecy that apparently promises death and disaster for any MacCarrick man who tries to marry. His father was already made victim to the curse, and despite the fact that the last lines of the prophecy are disguised by blood, all the MacCarrick brothers have studiously avoided any kind of emotional entanglement that could lead to permanent commitment. Those of us who have read the first book in the series, If You Dare, know what the punch line is, so to speak, but Hugh missed the revelation that clarifies the terms of the prophecy and frees him to run Jane to ground, drag her back to his castle, and slake more than ten years of mutual lust.
Instead we have Jane's father, who also employs Hugh as a sharpshooter for one of the Crown's numerous (at least in Romancelandia) covert organizations, summon Hugh to London to protect Jane from someone who worked for Weyland and befriended Hugh before he succumbed to opium, insanity, and a major grudge against Weyland and Hugh. Thus, as Jane prepares to accept Freddie's long-standing marriage proposal, Weyland has convinced Hugh to marry his daughter so that he can take her away until the villainous and psychotic Davis Grey can be neutralized. Armed with the promise of an annulment when things calm down, Jane grumpily consents, setting up the necessary conditions for these two strong-minded, hard-headed, passionate protagonists to do what nature –" and love –" intends.
Thus the fun begins, with introverted Hugh and extroverted Jane provoking each other to a virtual frenzy of passionate engagement. Jane is one of those women who has a “system–? for organizing that might, to the uninitiated, make her look like a slob.
Shoes, stockings, laces, and satiny corsets littered the room. Dresses were puddle where she'd dropped them. So much disorder. Hugh hated disorder, craved the opposite in every aspect of his life.–? (since I read this in ebook, I have no page numbers)
Hugh appreciates control and organization because he's needed both to become a successful assassin for the Crown, and he is afraid that if he should give in to Jane's passionate appeals, she would eventually be disgusted by his profession. He feared that even if she could get past all the killing he'd done, fierce Jane still might find his means . . . cowardly.
There's nothing terribly new here, but one of the things that made this love affair so enjoyable for me was the fact that Hugh and Jane have known each other for so many years, that they have always had a comfortable friendship that made their growing lust already grounded in a certain emotional closeness. Jane's ease with other people balances Hugh's solitary awkwardness, and Hugh's reflective constancy balances Jane's brash impulsiveness. These two genuinely like each other, so even as Jane hurts because Hugh abandoned her for ten years, she knows he's a good man. And even as Hugh warns Jane not to tease him sexually, he yearns for the comfort of her companionship. Hugh was the one who encouraged her to beat the men who didn't think a woman could be a master archer. Hugh was the one who swam with her at her family's estate and who carried all her crap around for her (dumbstruck from the memory of Jane in wet linen, no doubt) and who listened to her talk about the ring she eventually wanted from her intended husband (a broad hint, even then). And when Hugh regrets their first passionate coupling, Jane reminds him, “'it's just me, remember. It's just your Jane. We were always comfortable around each other.'–? Hugh, though, still has that family curse to worry about.
Of course Hugh has to be stubborn here, else a major element of the novel's conflict would disappear. But at least Jane knows he's being stubborn and myopic, which puts the reader firmly in alliance with her, because we know what Jane only suspects, namely that Hugh's loyalty to the family curse is misplaced. I thought that was a clever way for Cole to circumvent the frustration I often have with the character who clings to pride at the expense of True Love, and it also makes for a very heroine-centric book that still has the feeling of those old skool Romances featuring the brooding alpha hero a good deal of hot and heavy sex.
By setting up Jane and Hugh's growing relationship against two conflicts, one based on Hugh's fear of the curse and one based on the external threat of Davis Grey, Cole was able to vacillate effectively between building intimacy between Hugh and Jane and keeping up the suspenseful momentum of the book as a whole. While there isn't a great deal of nuance in the characters or writing or the plotting, there is an exuberance that infuses the book and kept me engaged in all the right ways. Besides rooting happily for Hugh and Jane, I also loved a secondary character who gives Jane a good run for her money and appreciated the lighthearted diversion Jane's family offered at crucial points in the book. Cole doesn't forget about the wonderful Freddie, either, and rewards him nicely for his friendship and loyalty to Jane.
Near the end of the book I found Hugh's self-pitying martyrdom a little tiresome, but I was glad Jane didn't make herself a victim –" once again –" to a sacrifice that looks suspiciously like another abandonment. And by the last page, I was already feeling impatient for the next book in the series, which speaks to Cole's skill in making so much old feel new and fun again –" at least for a few hours. B for this one.