Dear Ms. Kleypas:
I may be in the minority of readers in this, but I really prefer your contemporary books to your historicals. I find your contemporary voice more confident, fluent, and engaging, and, more specifically, I find Travis series books reliable comfort reads. Since we already had reviews of Sugar Daddy and Smooth Talking Stranger posted, Jane asked me if I wanted to write a view of Blue-Eyed Devil. I readily agreed, not only because it rounds out our coverage of the Travis series, but also because I think the novel’s treatment of domestic violence is an ever-timely and important discussion subject.
When Haven Travis defies her father’s wishes by marrying college boyfriend Nick Tanner, she is determined that she and Nick will be blissfully happy and she will never need her father – or his money. Which is a good thing, since Churchill Travis informs his daughter he will disinherit her if she goes through with the marriage. Churchill is a proud and arrogant man, but perhaps he also knows something about Nick that the young and naïve Haven does not yet see: the insecurities that express themselves through physical and emotional abuse of Haven. Still, it takes quite a while for Haven – who has inherited no small portion of her father’s pride – to break free of Nick’s control, and when she finally makes the phone call home, after Nick beat her and literally threw her out of the house, she calls her big brother Gage, who wastes no time in getting Haven back to Houston and, if he has his way, rapidly out of her violent marriage.
Because that’s the thing about the Travis men: they are charming as hell but too used to wielding their own power unchecked. Protective rather than abusive toward their women, the control is nonetheless the last thing Haven can stomach, having been controlled in almost every way by Nick. Still, it’s a long road back for Haven emotionally, and even as she makes substantial strides in her life – working for her brother Jack’s leasing company; divorcing Nick; undertaking psychotherapy – she still has a great deal of fear around men. So it’s no surprise that when she runs into Hardy Cates – her sister-in-law’s trailer park teenage crush and now a wealthy Houston oil man – she can literally feel the long-healed aches in her body from her final beating from Nick. And yet she is drawn to Hardy, too, just as she was in her family’s dark wine cellar when she accidentally kissed Hardy at Gage and Liberty’s wedding. Well the first kiss was accidental, at least, until she realized it wasn’t Nick who was wreaking such havoc on her sexual nerves. That long-ago kiss sealed the attraction between Haven and Hardy, though, and when they see each other again, Hardy is intent on taking things to the next level.
Hardy, of course, has no idea about Haven’s experience with Nick. In fact, he still sees in her a bit of a spoiled college girl whose apparent liberalism was more intellectual snobbery than authentic sentiment. So when Haven tends to act a bit standoffish in response to his assertive, even aggressive pursuit, Hardy isn’t sure she’s merely skittish or a tease, and he tries even harder to win her over, purchasing a condo in the Travis building where Haven works, buying her a gift that brings back memories of Haven’s childhood, and inviting her to a dance with him in front of her family, who see him as a no good, lying jerk who will take advantage of Haven if given half a chance (this aspect of the relationship was developed in Sugar Daddy, where Hardy tries to take Liberty away from Gage and interferes with an important Travis business deal).
Haven is not sure how to feel about Hardy’s pursuit. Part of her refuses to trust his motives, but another part is strongly drawn to the man her best friend Todd describes as “’[c]ool, tough retro-manly. The kind who only cries if someone just ran over his dog. The big-chested guy we can indulge our pathetic daddy complexes with.’” Although Todd also discerns that Hardy is more than he seems, a “’bending-the-rules, foxy, conniving twisted’” kind of guy who uses his “’aw-shucks-I’m-just-a-redneck routine’” to “’set people up” before he “goes in for the kill.’” In fact, Todd notes how much like Haven’t own father Hardy is in his “calculated underplaying,” which makes Haven even more wary of Hardy’s charm and intelligence. Indeed, Hardy uses a deft mixture of gentleness, charm, and forthright pressure with Haven that keeps her off balance but also keeps her coming back for more.
One of the things that drives me bonkers in Romance novels is a heroine supposedly recovering from abuse who somehow unconsciously recognizes that the hero is “safe” for her and has little compunction about jumping into a relationship – and into bed – with him. But one of my favorite aspects of Blue-Eyed Devil is that Haven and Hardy’s relationship does not follow that easy path. Like Haven, the reader wants to feel that Hardy is safe, but we still remember what he pulled in Sugar Daddy, making him a bit dangerous (or a bit contradictory in character, something I’ll address later). And Haven, who had almost no relationship or sexual experience before Nick, is doubly disadvantaged around a guy like Hardy, who is widely known for his bedroom looks and skills and ignorant of Haven’s history. A born seducer, Hardy pushes her sexually, and when she pushes back, he gets angry:
“Like hell I was pushing you. You wanted it.”
“Don’t flatter yourself, Hardy.”
He looked flushed and dangerously aroused and annoyed as hell. Slowly he began to restore his own clothing. When he spoke again, his voice was low and controlled. “There’s a word, Haven, for a woman who does what you’re doing.”
“I’m sure you know a lot of interesting words,” I said. “Maybe you should go tell them to someone else.”
As much as I hated Hardy in this scene, I loved that Hardy makes this misstep, because it shows him to be a mere mortal, vulnerable in his own way. Because Hardy has a history, too – he got himself out of a trailer park and into the Houston social scene all by himself, and his own family history is even darker and more violent than what Haven experienced. Which makes his attraction to Haven very believable, even logical, in the same way that Haven’t attraction to a man who reminds her of her approval-withholding father is. For many readers, this kind of psychological layering makes Blue-Eyed Devil an “issue book,” but for me it’s really a book about people who have issues that make them good for each other but in really complicated and not-instantly negotiated ways.
Still, the story is romance at heart, and there is a certain amount of tension between the way the book tries to show Haven’s emotional journey in an authentic way and the almost fairy tale happiness we know Haven and Hardy will ultimately enjoy. For example, when Nick shows up to harass Haven before one of her dates with Hardy, it triggers an extreme emotional reaction in Haven that brings her relationship with Hardy to a crisis:
“. . . I’m broken.” I blotted my eyes with a shirtsleeve. “I wish I’d slept with someone before I married Nick, because at least then I’d have some good experience with sex. As it is, though. . .”
Hardy watched me intently. “That night of the theater opening. . . you had a flashback when I was kissing you, didn’t you? That’s why you took off like a scalded cat.”
I nodded. “Something in my mind clicked, and it was like I was with Nick, and all I knew was that I had to get away or I would be hurt.” . . .
“I guess it’s over now,” I said bravely. “Right?”
“Is that what you want?”
My throat clenched. I shook me head.
“What do you want, Haven?”
“I want you,” I burst out, and the tears spilled over again. “But I can’t have you.”
Hardy moved closer, gripping my head in his hands, forcing me to look at him. “Haven, sweetheart . . . you’ve already got me.”
I looked at him through a hot blur. His eyes were filled with anguished concern and fury. “I’m not going anywhere,” he said. “And you’re not broken. You’re scared, like any woman would be, after what that son of a bitch did.” A pause, a curse, a deep breath. An intent stare. “Will you let me hold you now?”
On the one hand, I was moved by Hardy’s reaction when he finally learns about Haven’s past and starts putting all the mixed signals into logical order, but I also saw the way the scene was set up to push Hardy and Haven into physical intimacy so the romance arc can progress. So as many ways as we can see Haven struggling to move forward –taking back her personal agency, trying to deal alone with a sociopathically abusive boss, freak outs with Hardy, ongoing therapy, etc. – we know where things are going with Hardy, and while there’s a lot of comfort in that, there is also the necessity of getting Haven recovered enough to have a healthy relationship in a timeframe that suits the romantic arc (i.e. condensed).
Additionally there is the problem of Hardy. In Sugar Daddy he showed himself to be ruthless and selfish, willing to betray a hard-won trust to get what he wanted. But by Blue-Eyed Devil we’re supposed to be willing to put our own trust in Hardy as an appropriate partner for the somewhat fragile Haven, which means we have to know he’s fundamentally a good guy. If readers are not familiar with the first book in the series, this might not seem like such a problem; however, if they are reading the series in order, Hardy feels a little artificially rehabilitated for the second book.
Still, Hardy is not a perfect man in Blue-Eyed Devil, even though we know from the beginning that he is The One for Haven. His missteps give his own character depth and let us know that he is a man who understands destructive family dynamics and has his own self-destructive streak to manage. Moreover, we see what Haven gives to Hardy rather than merely seeing Hardy as someone who will “save” Haven and bring her happiness. Hardy’s own background and his own unraveling during the course of the novel reveal the extent to which Hardy needs saving, too, and the extent to which both Hardy and Haven need a compassionate, protective, trustworthy partner.
At heart, though, I read Blue-Eyed Devil as Haven’s story. In fact, I find the whole series to be very heroine-centric, which may be one reason I like them so much. It’s not that the romance is peripheral or unimportant, or the men forgettable (in fact, they’re all very imposing, dynamic, handsome men); it’s that I find the heroine’s journey about more than one in which she finds love with the hero. Haven has to find the road back to being able to trust and accept herself and be confident in who she is. And Hardy is, indeed, a delicious counterpart, his love for Haven as big and powerful as he is. As I said, this book (and the series as a whole) is a comfort read for me – engaging, emotionally fulfilling, and psychologically satisfying despite its flaws and inconsistencies. B