This week the wonderful Tessa Radley joins us to continue our Pink Heart Society series on Favourite Category Romances ......
I'm going to admit right up that I can't possibly choose only ONE favourite romance! So I thought I'd share what I love most as a reader—to be surprised. 'Stranger in the Night' by Charlotte Lamb, published by M&B in 1980, undermined a lot of the conventions of romance at the time—it was a startlingly read.
Jane Holland maintains a blog in memory of her mother, Charlotte Lamb, and remembers:
The book appears to date from 1980 - 1981, which is when my mother was settling into her time on the Isle of Man…in 1979/1980, my mother would have been working at a furious rate most days, often writing with barely a break from about 9am through to the early hours of the morning in her bedroom-cum-study which overlooked the glorious bay at Port St Mary. The house was right on top of a steep hill, so views were marvellous there, with a sweeping vista that began with Manx palm trees - right below her window - and continued down over the slate village rooftops to the sea, where you could see yachts and fishing boats scudding to and fro most days.
In the opening chapter Clare Berry, the heroine, is an aspiring actress and attends a party where she meets the Stranger in the Night of the title, Luke Murry.
"Hallo, Charleston girl!"
The husky voice at her side startled her. She whirled, the beaded fringe of her short dress flaring around her knees.
"You're not dancing! We can't have that. That dress was made for dancing in, wasn't it? The tall man who had materialized beside her slid his arm around her waist and smiled at her.
Like a true hero, Luke admires her, he's gorgeous and slightly mocking and sweeps her onto the dancefloor.
"You're very elegant," she said brightly. "Have you been anywhere special?"
"Not until now," he said, his smile underlining the flattery.
Clare laughed, beginning to feel strangely excited. She had never met anyone like him in her life and her heart had begun to beat rather alarmingly.
The sexual tension sparks between Luke and Clare.
"Let's find a quieter party," Luke said lightly. "There are too many people at this one."
Clare frowned, trying to focus on him. "Do you know a quieter party?"
"I do, Charleston girl." He smiled down into her dreamy green eyes and Clare smiled back.
"I hoped you'd say that," he told her with amusement.
But, despite her seemingly worldly behaviour, Clare is unsophisticated. Feeling dizzy as they leave the party, she's starting to wonder if she is drunk. But she still has a modicum of self-preservation left:
Clare frowned and looked up at him enquiringly. "Where are we? Where's the party?"
"In here," said Luke, laughing.
She let him walk into the room and then stopped, realizing it was empty. A surge of panic hit her and she turned in protest.
Luke's arms went around her before she could finish the sentence.
Luke kisses her, she responds. But everything is happening too fast. Clare tries to tell him she's never done this before…then she tells him "No". She's scared. She struggles. But he won't stop…
The story moves forward nine years. Clare is a successful movie star enjoying rest time in Nice. Interestingly, Jane Holland, the author's daughter, says, 'We had also just started taking our summer holidays in France, around 1979, having always holidayed in England before then. 1980 would have marked our first tentative expedition to the South of France, where we were embarrassingly unused to the hot weather.' So Charlotte Lamb was familiar with Nice and this comes across in the book, giving it wonderful depth.
Clare is successful, beautiful, but her experience with Luke has left her in a state of arrested development. As a reader I knew from past experience that Luke would turn up again…the forced seduction in the past would turn out to be a horrible misunderstanding…and the story would end happily. After all, there was sexual fizz between them. Although Clare had been innocent, pretending to be worldly, Luke was everything a hero should be. Right? But then we're introduced to Macey Janson, a leading playwright and long time friend.
She had known Macey so well for so long, yet in one night Luke Murray had stamped his image so profoundly on her memory that even the fleeting expression of his face seemed more deeply familiar to her than anything about Macey…Macey would never be handsome. His face was strong and compelling rather than handsome; there was no shadow of sensuality in it.
Macey is intuitive, clever…with a biting sense of humour. Then Luke returns. I'd read plenty of stories with similar plots—I knew what was coming: Luke, the Stranger in the Night, is back to release Clare from her sleeping beauty state. The tension between him and Clare jumps off the page. Yet I'm ill at ease. I know that Luke is her first and only lover…he will be her last. But I don't like Luke. And I ADORE Macey. Concerned about Clare, creative…yet I knew there wasn't a chance in hell that Macey would be the hero. I was not happy where this Happy Ever After was heading—I didn't want Clare settling for Luke. Fortunately, Clare has a lot more sense than the heroines in other romances I'd read, after Luke kisses her, she says:
"And now that's over, would you mind shoving off, Mr. Murry? I don't want to know."
There was fury in his face, a fury she remembered. Luke Murry did not like being frustrated. He had forced her to submit to him once before and looking into those grey eyes she sensed he was quite capable of doing so again.
Eventually Macey drags the shameful truth of what happened in the past out of Clare.
Macey swore hoarsely. "Why the hell didn't you tell someone?"
"Rape?" she asked in a slow, tired voice. "How many people would believe me? I went with him of my own accord. And to do him justice, I suppose he thought I was willing, too. He thought I knew what he wanted. How was he to guess I was as thick as a plank?"
Now the reader in me is sitting up wide-eyed. Rape? Not forced seduction? Not excusable? Luke is the bad-guy, not the hero. I have an urge to cheer. Macey reacts with alpha-hero anger against her attacker. "The bastard," Macey said suddenly, his tone raw. "I'll kill him! I'll spoil that face of his for life."
And then comes Macey's empathy—which is what made me truly fall in love with him:
"You didn't expect it to make any difference to how I felt about you?"
Her silence answered him. After a pause he said huskily, "Not a chance, darling. I'm totally hooked on you. Don't you know that? If you had loved Murry and had the faintest chance of being happy with him, I'd have stood aside and let him have you, even though it would have killed me to do it. But knowing what that swine did to you doesn't make me feel any differently about you. Him I'd like to cut into a thousand tiny pieces, but you! How could you think for one moment that it would matter a damn to me, expect to make me wish I could have prevented it?"
I knew that Clare would be happy with Macey. He's protective. He loves her. Despite looking deceptively beta, he's as alpha as they come. But Clare's needs come first:
"I'd rather see you married to another man than have a few weeks' satisfaction with you and have you walk away afterwards hating my guts."
More than anything in the world, Macey wants Clare to be happy. Unlike Luke, his love is selfless—not about his own gratification.
As so often happens in real life, Luke didn't look like a villain--he was gorgeous, appealing to woman…and all the more dangerous for it. Charlotte Lamb makes it clear that Luke's seduction of the young inebriated Clare in the past was not okay—labels it rape—and gives Clare a second chance at love with a great guy. Back in 1980 'Stranger in the Night' was brave, contemporary, cutting edge—and totally relevant to the lives of contemporary women.
Tessa Radley writes for Silhouette Desire.
'Rich Man's Revenge' is a June 2007 release. Check out her great website for more information.