So last year I did this whole year-end “Best of” thing, with heroes, heroines, supporting characters, titles & covers, etc. This year, between a looming deadline and promo demands for A Lady Awakened, I just don’t have time to pull that off, so I’m going to restrict myself to the one category that made the biggest impression on me this year: heroes.
My apologies to KT Grant, whose Scandal in the Wind would have been my hands-down winner for Best Title of 2011. (I know, I know; I usually don’t like the pop-song titles, but that bonus reference to Gone with the Wind – Scandal is a lesbian love story set in the Civil-War-era South – boomerangs it right back into positive territory and all the way through into awesome.)
And now, on with the heroes.
Jonah is a beautiful balancing-act of a character, exasperating, a bit laughable, and deeply sympathetic all at once. He reminded me a little of the butler-narrator in The Remains of the Day, having devoted himself wholeheartedly to a rather dry and insignificant career, in his case a clerk position at a Gilded Age New York bank, at the expense of any emotional life.
But emotional life comes calling in the form of Reid Hylliard, a brash interloper who wins the head cashier position to which Jonah had aspired and then, to Jonah’s dismay, proposes an endless string of business innovations while winning over the bank’s board and staff with his easy charm. Worse yet, he’s not taken aback in the least by Jonah’s expressions of disapproval, and seems determined to win him over too.
Jonah finds it impossible to swallow his concerns, and tries to reason frankly with Reid:
“You may have done no damage – yet. But I’ve every reason to anticipate it, if we continue so recklessly.”
“Because I’m not doing the job according to your rules?”
“By the rules that govern banking. You’re careless, impulsive, and as steady as a weathervane. You should be mindful, prudent – “
“Those sound like your rules.”
“They are every banker’s rules, and better than no rules at all.”
Reid laid palms flat on the desk and leaned toward him. “The changes I’ve made have been proven at other banks. The board finds them sensible. The staff loves them. You are the only one who foresees disaster. I thought I knew why, but now I’m wondering if it’s more than losing a promotion you thought you deserved. You won’t court change because it involves risk. The untried, the unknown. The unsafe.” Reid’s smile was slight, but unexpectedly sympathetic. “Mr. Grandborough was right. You don’t do anything in haste. Or maybe…” He leaned closer. “You’re just waiting for a push.”
Jonah let a cold smile come. “I’m quite aware of the direction you’d like to push me.”
Reid had the brass to grin. “Mr. Woolner, you don’t have the first idea.”
Lord Gideon Haverston, Nearly a Lady, Alissa Johnson
I’m one of those oddballs who thinks Henry Tilney is the real catch among Jane Austen’s heroes, so I couldn’t help but love good-natured, quirky-humored, utterly decent Lord Gideon.
He’s attempting to make things right with heroine Winnefred, a long-neglected, just-discovered ward of his father’s, and he proposes to arrange a London season for her and her bosom friend Lily.
Winnefred, raised without social graces, prone to hyperbolic outbursts, fiercely loyal to Lily and aware of a romantic disappointment in her friend’s past, tells him that if this scheme ends up bringing pain to Lily, she will cut out his heart and eat it, raw.
“Why… I’m sorry?”
“Why eat my heart raw?” he repeated. “It’s such an odd qualifier, as if it were assumed I’d prefer it first be roasted and smothered in a fine plum sauce.”
“Plum sauce?” Her mouth fell open, and a bubble of laughter escaped from her throat. “I think you are mad.”
“I’m curious. Would the act of cooking really render the deed less barbaric? And what of the rest of dining etiquette? Is anything permissible? Silverware, for example, or napkins? A seat at the table and a glass of port?”
Her amber eyes began to dance with humor, and her lips trembled with suppressed laughter. “I’m going to take my leave now. Good day, Lord Gideon.”
“Could there be side dishes and lively conversation?” He lifted his voice as she spun on her heel and walked away from him. “Pass the rolls, Mrs. Butley, and another helping of Lord Gideon’s raw heart. No, no, just use your fingers, dear, he’s being punished.”
Aww, Adrian. I had some trepidations about this book because I knew a big chunk of it took place when he and heroine Justine were teenagers, and I feared I’d get impatient: “Oh, my god, can you dispense with the spy stuff and hurry up to the part where they’re old enough to fall in love with each other already!”
But young Adrian turns out to be a delight, closer to his Cockney-urchin roots in both voice (nobody does voices like Joanna Bourne) and feral-punk attitude. And when older, wiser Adrian and older, wiser Justine finally make their peace, 24 years into their acquaintance, it’s a hard-won summation of all those years in which the two of them so often found their loyalties at odds:
Having perfected the fire, he settled back, his hands at rest on his knees. “I recognize hate when I see it.”
He would not be dismayed by the hatred of enemies. He could be hurt only by his friends. What she had done… “I do not hate you. I have not hated you for a long time.”
His narrow, ruthless face turned to her. He smiled. It was like the sun coming from behind a black and ominous thundercloud. “Do you think I don’t know that?”
On his chest, high on the shoulder, a farthing-sized mark in the shape of a star. That was where she’d shot him, long ago, on the marble stairway of the Louvre. She touched it. “I did this.”
“An accident.” He laughed, deep in his eyes. “I have that from an authoritative source.”
“You think it is funny, that I shot at you.”
“Not while it was happening, no. Looking back, it does have its humorous side.”
No one else in the entire world would be amused by being shot. Only Hawker.
There are really three Tarquin Comptons in this story: the insufferable, ton-ruling dandy who ruined Celia Seaton’s prospects with one snide remark; the kinder, gentler man who emerges when amnesia robs him of his practiced identity, and, eventually, the more mature person who’s able to integrate the two selves into one.
Because I’m perverse this way, I was secretly partial to the pompous, snobbish Tarquin, and never more so than when he first gets his memory back – and realizes the full extent of the deception Celia has practiced upon him:
“You said we were engaged. My God! We lay together. How could you? What were you thinking? You’re a lady of breeding. How could you allow something so improper?”
“I don’t remember you being so reluctant,” she said with a show of spirit.
She was correct and it made him more furious. He’d known he was doing wrong. In his shame he lashed out at her. “You were a virgin. You should have guarded your virtue.”
Celia had been cringing with guilt, prepared to grovel at his feet and beg his forgiveness, but that riled her. She crawled over to the edge of the loft and glared down at him. “I know about men like you. You seduce innocent girls, force them to your will, then blame them.”
“I beg to inform you, madam,” he sputtered, “that I have never forced a woman, neither have I seduced an innocent, in my entire life. And I certainly wouldn’t have seduced you – and I beg leave to dispute that I was the seducer – had I not believed us to be betrothed.” He put his hands on his hips. “Why did you do it? To trap me into marriage? Well, madam, you fail. I refuse to fall victim to your scheme.”
I think “Well, madam, you fail” – delivered with hands on hips, no less! – may be my single favorite line from a romance this year.
Readers, add to my list! Who were some heroes who captured your imagination in 2011, and what made them memorable to you?