REVIEW: The Mistress Deception by Susan Napier
Dear Ms. Napier:
When someone on Twitter mentioned that your older book, The Mistress Deception, features a virgin widower, I bolted right over to Amazon to purchase a digital copy, excited at the idea of a Harlequin Presents playing against type in this way. That was not the only pleasant surprise of the book, and despite some cringeworthy behavior on the part of the hero, I enjoyed The Mistress Deception quite a bit.
Matthew Riordan always gets extremely drunk on the anniversary of his wife’s death. When he shows up in a completely disreputable and obnoxious state to a formal dinner party where Rachel Blair is working security, the hostess begs Rachel to do something before he ruins the entire evening. Something turns out to be discreetly tripping him into the pool and then taking him to the guest house where he can change clothes and, hopefully, sleep it off.
Matthew has other plans, however, with Rachel’s lush body mere inches away as she helps him remove his sodden clothes. All evening he has been sexually crude and provocatively insulting to the voluptuous stranger, and now he demonstrates how close his disrespect is to his physical desire for her. After an extended physical struggle, Rachel has to subdue Matthew physically, eventually tying his hands to the headboard of the guest bed after he pulls the top of her dress down and begins fondling her breasts, begging her for more. Which partially explains Matthew’s incendiary reaction to the photos he receives in the mail several days later, which detail the more lascivious moments between him and Rachel, including a whip on the bed of which he has no recollection. The photos were actually sent to his father, for whom Matthew is filling in at his father’s waste-disposal conglomerate while his father recovers from a heart attack. While Matthew is thankful he intercepted the envelope before his father saw its contents, he is enraged at the thought that Rachel Blair would dare to try to humiliate and/or blackmail him!
When Rachel receives the package from KR Industries, she has fleeting thoughts of an early birthday present, until, that is, she sees the photographs and the note from Matthew Riordan that promises retribution:
What will happen to Weston’s reputation for probity and discretion when your corporate clients find out that their security rests in the whip-hand of a blowsy, over-blown dominatrix who looks as if she’d be more at home in a brothel than in a boardroom?
Rachel is doubly baffled; not only is she as scandalized and confused by the photos – and their possible source – as Matthew, but she cannot imagine why the man would want to ruin a woman who had gone out of her way to be discrete about what had happened at the party and in the guest house. And how dare he call her “blowsy”! Rachel hadn’t even wanted to wear that figure-hugging dress, going out of her way under normal circumstances to downplay her curves and neutralize her physicality. Her own past taught her to do that, but beyond those secrets, Rachel has worked hard to be taken seriously, both as a fitness trainer and half owner of a security company. Despite the strange things that had been happening to her since she inherited the company and her home from her fiancé, following his unexpected death – bureaucratic mistakes and bogus anonymous complaints against her – Rachel was determined to keep Weston Security intact, if not for herself, then at least for her fiancé’s brother and business partner, Frank. And those party photos could endanger more than Weston’s present future contracts, one of which is a pending deal with KR Industries.
Fortunately, Rachel is not the hand-wringing type, and she sets out to surreptitiously follow Matthew to determine his intentions with the photos. An accident of timing and a coincidence involving Matthew’s mother brings the two together in the hospital where Matthew’s father is recovering and into combat that reveals their mutual mistrust and reluctant but no less mutual attraction:
“What do you think you’re doing?” she screeched as he kicked the door shut behind them. Her shoulder bumped against a shelf of folded sheets as she hastily tried to widen the distance between them in the narrowly confined space. The overhead light threw Matthew’s grim face into harsh relief as she protested shrilly, “This is a supply cupboard!”
“I stand in awe of your powers of deduction,” he sneered, leaning back against the door as he tore open the envelope in his hand.
“That was addressed to your father, not you!” she accused.
“And what is it you’re so keen for him to see? Ahh, what have we here? Another episode of the Lifestyles of the Sick and Shameless? He flashed her a familiar set of images and she sucked in an appalled breath.
“Oh, my God!” She raised her bewildered gaze to his.
“You bitch!” He exploded away from the door. “You had to keep turning the screws didn’t you? Even when you knew it wasn’t going to get you what you wanted!”
It’s not long before Rachel delivers the obligatory slap, which changes the tone of their exchange substantially:
“You looking to get physical with me?” he growled, leaning closer.
. . .
“How do I look? As if I want to eat you?” He nipped at the succulent flesh, keeping it captive between his teeth as she arched her neck away, then releasing it to press his open mouth into the sensitive hollow between the stem of her neck and her collarbone and drink in the taste and texture of her skin. “That’s because I do! God, how can someone so bad taste so damned good…?” he groaned.
Since she was fifteen Rachel’s worst nightmare had been to find herself pinned down by superior strength, trapped and helpless against a greedy male assault. But where was the revulsion, the fear and the fury to defend herself now? She was rendered helpless – not by the violence of Matthew’s sexual need, but the uncontrollable desires that raced recklessly through her own veins.
Had I not been familiar with the melodramatic structure and language of Harlequin Presents, I might have put the book down following this exchange. The cheesy double-entendres, the contrast between Rachel’s experience with sexual assault and Matthew’s, uh, sexual assault, make me wince when I read them back out of context and outside the heat of the moment I was reading the book for the first time. And then, when Matthew “kidnaps” Rachel and takes her to his compound, literally locking her in, I knew it would take very little to push the rest of the book around the bend to Krazy Town, no U-Turn allowed.
Instead, these two capricious caricatures morph into rational, interesting people, who are actually able to talk to each other about who may be setting them both up and why. And in a nice role reversal, it is Rachel, not Matthew, who is the “expert” when it comes to strategy:
“Let’s remember that I’m the professional in this field; you’re just a –“
“Bumbling amateur,” she corrected.
“Oh, I get it. I’m Watson to your Holmes.”
She frowned. “This isn’t a game.”
“No, but that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy it.”
And despite the previous lack of control their passionate attraction seemed to foreshadow, their physical relationship develops slowly, in large part because the more they talk to each other and share their pasts, the more obvious it becomes that sex is a very big deal to both of them, albeit for different reasons. Thus the investigatory partnership creates a bond of equality between them that builds trust and intimacy without the uncomfortable power dynamics HP’s sometimes utilize to generate relationship drama.
However, there is enough tension in Matthew and Rachel’s personal histories to infuse their budding relationship with emotional drama. The circumstances of Matthew’s marriage and his wife’s death are much more complex and tragic than is commonly known, while Rachel has her own secrets that make her protective of her independence and her work and family. Those secrets make a moment of wavering faith Rachel has in Matthew somewhat understandable, although what truly saves the moment from being a mere Mandatory Plot Obstacle To True Love is Rachel’s quick recovery of her usual reasonable, evidence-based thought-process.
The Mistress Deception is an interesting book. There are elements and sections of the story that cohere to some of the stereotypes associated with the Presents line, while other aspects of the book subvert those stereotypes thoughtfully and compellingly. Throughout I was compelled to keep reading, even when I was wincing, and I even enjoyed much of the melodrama, especially when it revealed layers of significance for the characters (the scene where Rachel ties Matthew to the bed, for example, is a provocatively written exchange, changing in significance once the truth of Matthew’s past is finally revealed). Rachel had moments of pseudo-martyrdom, but her practicality and independent intelligence compensated greatly, and the general respect she and Matthew develop for one another created a lot of good will for me in terms of trusting in the wisdom of their union. The mystery of the photos was not a big surprise to me, but it fit with the characters and the storyline, and it served a rational purpose in catalyzing the romantic relationship. By the end, The Mistress Deception resolved into a B read for me.
This is one of my least favorite books of Ms. Napier. There were just too many angst issues. To wit:
1. HIV infected 1st wife (of hero) who commits suicide who was also shagging evil! cousin of hero. Wife was also pregnant by evil cousin and marries hero because he would keep her safe. She commits suicide because “hero too good for her”
That would be enough angst for one book, but no – there is more!
2. Virginity of hero based upon his tragic infatuation of 1st wife, but also because as a 15 year old he was once accused (and arrested) of raping 15 year old girl who was trying to hide the fact that she was having sex with her motorcycle riding boyfriend!
3. Heroine was raped at 15, got pregnant by rape, rapist raped lots of other girls but was arrested and died during trial. Heroine lets her infertile, much older sibling adopt said child. Child wants to live with bio-mom, but she bravely tells child no.
4. Heroine married once before, husband tragically dies in car accident (swerving to save child in the road) and heroine has inherited security business from husband.
5. Hero and heroine dealing with blackmail of doctored porn pictures.
6. Heroine’s body issues from being very tall (over 6′) and very curveacous.
Any of those issues could have driven a single presents novel. However, after a while I was just overwhelmed by angst issues. It felt like the each chapter had a checklist of WTFBBQ to get through. I didn’t even mention hero’s father heart attack, heroine’s sister (and adopted birth child) moving overseas, heroine’s 2nd and 3rd job being a masseuse and exercise savant, or the heroine’s BIL form first marriage trying to convince her to sell off her 51% interest in the security business to him at firesale pricing by setting IRS and local authorities on heroine by anonymous false tips.
No on should be surprised by epilogue containing not just one child…but a set of twins that make everything complete!
Sasha got all that and I still can’t get past “waste-disposal conglomerate”. I’m thinking “garbage king”?
No, RebeccaJ, it’s not *just* the Garbage King, it’s The Virgin Garbage King! That’s such a craptastic title for a romance, I’m tempted to whip an ebook novella and put it on Amazon, just to see how many clicks it gets!
And you know what, I think I was so goggle-eyed at everything else in the book that “waste-management conglomerate” didn’t even hit my radar. But I would love to read The Virgin Garbage King. I have to believe it would be better than the trash Ms. Napier served here.
@sasha: Actually, the ex-wife’s death is pretty clearly credited to her being extremely emotionally troubled in general, IMO. As for the rest of it, I loved it all!
@RebeccaJ: That was one of my favorite things, actually, because it was so UN-glamorous, a nice change AND a believable megabucks industry. Disposal of industrial and construction waste, especially, is still a booming industry where I live, despite the economic downturns.
Glad to see Napier worked for you. I consider her the perfect category author. The Mistress Deception is one of her more over-the-top stories and, while I enjoyed it, it’s not one of my favorites. But even with all the plot she puts into her books, they rarely feel overstuffed or underdeveloped. Somehow she manages to pull me along and make it all vastly entertaining.
Another book of hers that is full of the sturm und drang would be The Accidental Mistress (a/k/a Emily’s Absolutely Awful Adventures Ad Infinitum). It’s a subversive treasure featuring a Perils of Pauline heroine, a complete jackass of a hero, and the ad infinitum part would be that she is going to marry him. And, for the best of her crazy-times books, I can’t recommend Mistress of the Groom highly enough.
@Lynn S.: ut even with all the plot she puts into her books, they rarely feel overstuffed or underdeveloped. Somehow she manages to pull me along and make it all vastly entertaining.
This is how it is for me, too.
I was not the biggest fan of Accidental Mistress (I reviewed it here: https://dearauthor.com/book-reviews/review-accidental-mistress-by-susan-napier-2), but I have adored a number of her books, including In Bed With the Boss, The Revenge Mistress, and Price of Passion. I’m right now working on triple vengeance-themed review that includes The Revenge Mistress and another Napier that did NOT work for me at all (sailed right over that line between good crazy and bad crazy).
Now I’m going in search of Mistress of the Groom…
@ Lynn S. Mistress of the Groom was quite good, and I agree with you that she can put a ton of angst in most of her books without them feeling overstuffed. This one just really didn’t work for me precisely because it did feel overstuffed to me. Everytime there was another OMG issue, it took me out of the story and was resolved so quickly as to be unbelievable, even though I actually found the hero and heroine to be quite likeable.
@ Janet I hadn’t thought of the “real world”-ness of waste management conglomerates before you brought that up. Thanks for giving me a different perspective on that. Anecdotally, my personal experience is that there is always some low to mid level corruption in waste management, which actually works with the whole evil! cousin side of the story.
@Robin/Janet: My initial reaction to The Accidental Mistress was much like yours. Then, the more I thought about it, the more I decided the author was messing with me, and I find the book now has a perverse charm to it.
@sasha: I don’t have any personal experience in the industry, but I am familiar with all the stereotypes. I do know a couple who went into the business themselves a few years ago, and their company took off almost immediately (one of them had a lot of experience in the industry before they went out on their own). That forced me to revise some of my own preconceptions. ;D In general, I’m cynical about corporate corruption, but your point about the cousin (Neville, IIRC) is interesting — I hadn’t though of it that way.
@Lynn S.: It’s been a couple of years since I read it, so a re-read might yield a different perception now. I am used to Napier subverting various genre stereotypes, so I think I give her the benefit of the doubt more often than not. Still, sometimes the books miss for me, which is only to be expected given the number of books she’s written. Still, this convo reminded me that I really want to catch up on the series to which Price of Passion is connected. I’ve heard good things about the other books.
I adored In Bed With The Boss and a couple of other Napiers. Vendetta was the one that tipped the edge into crazy cuckoo land for me. But even her crazier books keep me reading. It’s like Lynne Graham. Total crack for me.
@Ros: Ooh, Vendetta is part of my revenge-themed triple review. That book is almost beyond description, isn’t it?!