Mills & Boon is the UK arm of the Harlequin publishing house. I don’t understand the publishing schedule of books between Mills & Boon and Harlequin North America. What I do know is that buying from M&B is a losing proposition for me. You see, MB has this line called “Modern” which somewhat overlaps with the Harlequin Presents line. The first of every month, MB loads its new books and often these are books that won’t be published in the North America for several months. Because of the exchange rate, I generally pay more for the exact same books I buy at MB, although it is not a tremendous loss. Further, because I have a subscription to Harlequin Presents which is, I believe, $25, for 8 books, I often end up paying twice for the same book. And even having a subscription is a loss for me as Amazon usually sells the Harlequin Presents bundle for $9.99. (Note, I have been informed that these bundles are no longer available at Amazon).
So why do I buy books from Mills & Boon? Because some books I want to read now. I guess it is the curse of the early adopter. I pay more now to read something that you can all enjoy three months later but you know what? I don’t regret it in the least because I’ve read and re-read portions of Katrakis’ Last Mistress a dozen times and when it comes up for sale in North America in March of 2011, I’ll be able to tell you all to run out and buy it. But really we are a global reading community and for many others, Mills & Boon is one of their primary shopping sites so let me tell you why I loved Katrakis’ Last Mistress and why shopping at Mills & Boon might be in your future.
Katrakis’ Last Mistress by Caitlin Crews came to my attention over at the blog of Meljean Brook. Now, while I love Meljean’s books and her writing, I haven’t always loved the books she’s recommended. I recall that she loved India Grey and it took four books of Grey’s before I found one that I enjoyed. Meljean wrote that Crews’ book kept her up until 2 am. What caught my attention was that the hero was emotionally stunted and the heroine would not give up on him. I had to try it.
This book has high emotion, a lot of agnst, great dialogue and a meaningful character arc. It does not have a sappy, baby filled epilogue. In fact, the epilogue or last chapter, really, added the perfect texture to the story, providing you hope for the couple’s future without any saccharine.
Tristanne Barbery has a helpless mother who has racked up crippling debts and an asshole for a stepbrother. Unfortunately, Peter Barbery controls access to Tristanne’s trust fund. In order to have access to such funds, Tristanne must date a wealthy and powerful man while Peter attempts to close a funding deal for the family business. The possibility that Tristanne may marry more wealth will put investors at ease. Peter has no care for Tristanne, her pride, or her reputation. He merely says that she must use what “assets” she’s been given and help her family for once.
She decides to approach Nikos Katrakis, a man she’s always kind of lusted after but has never had the nerve to approach because somehow she knew that being within a hand’s distance of Katrakis was like putting herself in the mouth of the lair of the dragon. (She uses the dragon comparison throughout the book). Nikos is fiercely glad to be approached by Tristanne. He has had a vendetta against the Barbery family, particularly Peter, and for years has slowly eroded the Barbery fortune by a careless word here and there to the point that Peter is on the brink of ruin. He just needs a slight push. Nikos had no intention of using Tristanne but decides that fortune has placed her in his hands and he’ll exorcise this lamentable attraction toward her and wield her lust for him in a triumphant finale that will humiliate the Barbery’s and bring their illustrious name to ruin.
But Nikos is not prepared for Tristanne and her indomitable spirit. Initially she gives herself to him on a superficial level which makes Nikos want what she holds back and as they delve deeper into a relationship, Nikos has to keep reminding himself of his need for revenge.
I thought that Crews did a great job of showing exactly why Nikos was so broken. Toward the end, he tries to explain to Tristanne that he doesn’t believe in love and he goes on to explain why. Nikos was abandoned by his wealthy father to be brought up by an unfit mother. When he was orphaned, he sought out his father and as his father had no heir, his father reluctantly brought Nikos into the family, all the while telling Nikos he wasn’t fit to be a Katrakis. Nikos had a half sister and he longed to be her protector, to be loved by her (in a familial way) but she despised him too, even when she was at her lowest, she still saw him unfit to wipe her tears and comfort her broken heart. Nikos had never known love, didn’t trust proclamations of love, and knew as fiercely as he knew the sun would set tomorrow that Tristanne could never, ever love a man such as he.
There is a scene at the end in which Nikos does something so awful that you think redemption cannot be convincing yet Nikos’ actions make total sense because Tristanne has to see Nikos as his worst and still love him for Nikos to believe that the world may indeed be round when all his life, he has believed it to be flat.
In this story, Tristanne is the one with the strength and resolve even if Nikos is portrayed as the alpha male. She stands up to Peter and in many ways, stands up to Nikos. Her willingness to accept the joy now and deal with the pain later is all believable because you (or I) as the reader believed in Tristanne’s personal strength of will. Nothing could crush her, not even Nikos even though he tries his very best. Make no mistake. Nikos is cruel to Tristanne in this book. Yet, we see his internal struggle with pursuing his revenge and his bewilderment at Tristanne and the person that she brings out in him:
Was that her game? To make him betray his own vows to himself? If so, he was appalled to see how well it was working. What was next? Would he break into sobs in the center of the village piazza? Weep for his wounded inner child? He would more readily saw off his own head with the butter knife that rested on the crisp white linen tablecloth before him
The dialogue exchanges in this story are priceless, some funny, some witty, and some very poignant. For example, Tristanne boldly asks Nikos to kiss her, as a “favor.” Nikos questions why he should kiss her when there are so many other women on the yacht he could be kissing:
Surprise shone briefly in her gaze, then was replaced by something else. She swallowed, and then, very deliberately, smiled. It was a razor-sharp society smile. Nikos did not mistake it for anything but the weapon it was.
“Surely there are points for asking directly,” she said, her distractingly strong chin tilting up, her accent an unidentifiable yet attractive mix of Europe and North America. Her dark lashes swept down, then rose again to reveal her frank gaze. “Rather than lounging about in inappropriate clothing, hoping my décolletage might do the asking for me.”
and the exchange continues:
“But I am not in the habit of kissing strange women in view of so many,” he continued, his voice pitched for her ears alone. “It has a nasty habit of ending up in the tabloids, I find.”
“I apologize,” Tristanne murmured. Her clever eyes met his, daring him. “I was under the impression that you were renowned for your fearlessness. Your ability to scoff in the face of convention. Perhaps I have confused you for another Nikos Katrakis.
“I am devastated,” he replied smoothly, his eyes on hers. He moved closer, and something inside him beat like a drum when she still did not step away. “I assumed it was my good looks that drew you to me, begging to be kissed. Instead you are like all the rest. Are you a rich man’s groupie, Miss Barbery? Do you travel the world and collect kisses like a young girl collects autographs?”
“Not at all, Mr. Katrakis,” she replied at once. She tilted her head back, and raised her brows in that challenging way of hers. “I find rich men are my groupies. They follow me around, making demands. I thought to save you the trouble.”
Later when Tristanne decides that Nikos needs her as his mistress:
“How long will you stand there?” Nikos asked casually, without looking up from his paper. His voice was like a touch, a rough caress that made her shiver. “Why do you loom about with that serious look on your face, as if you are attending your own execution? This cannot be how you think mistresses act, Tristanne, can it?”
“I am calculating your net worth,” she replied coolly. She arched her eyebrows when his old gold eyes met hers, and ruthlessly tamped down her urge to squirm, to look away, to submit to the command in even his gaze. “I imagine that is the favorite pastime of most mistresses, in fact.”
In part what makes it such a joy to re-read this book is the lovely prose Crews employs, her elegant compilation of words into sentences. Nikos tells Tristanne at some point that mistresses don’t look poised and Tristanne replies that she will strive to keep her hair “in a great tangle.”
I can see this book not working for some, particularly if the mistress angle or the revenge angle bothers readers but this book is full of such emotion and great characters, that I do not regret buying it early at Mills & Boon and I won’t mind when it shows up in my March Harlequin Presents subscription.