The Man Behind the Mask, the first in a new trilogy from Barbara Wallace? Yeah, I'd get over my guilt pretty darn quick. I'd also start pouring over medical texts to find various "ailments" that could befall me at a moment's notice.
Delilah St. Germaine knows it's stupid, but she's got a horrible crush on her suave, sexy boss, Simon Cartwright. A mover and shaker at his family's advertising agency, Simon is the kind of guy who attends various and sundry charity events in New York City with beautiful women who are either 1) models 2) actresses 3) aspiring models or 4) aspiring actresses. He's way out of her league. Sure, she's a great PA but she knows who and what she is. She's a girl from Kansas that men like Simon Cartwright look right through. And now she finds herself having to spend the weekend with him in Boston working to land a big, key new account. Gee, that's not going to be torturous at all!
Simon is all flash and no substance - so it would seem. In reality he's a guy who is play-acting his way through life. Yes he's handsome, wears the right clothes, pours on the charm, and keeps his romantic entanglements strictly superficial. However that's not who he is. The real Simon is a man hiding a lot of pain, running away from a traumatic past that he's swept under the rug instead of confronting head-on. That traumatic past happened in Boston, and now he's on this business trip, back in the city that irrevocably changed him15 years ago. He's not handling his return all that well, and into this mix, when he's already off balance? Delilah. His attractive personal assistant whose mere presence seems to be the only thing keeping him from slipping right over the edge.
Explaining what makes a really good category romance is often an intangible thing. The simplest explanation, for me, is that you'll know it when you read it. This story has that indefinable "magic" that all really good category romances do. It's a perfect tasty morsel, a candy-coated confection wrapped around an emotionally gutting story. Two characters, perfectly matched, seemingly with nothing in common, but in truth they have everything in common. They can only belong with each other. One doesn't make sense without the other. Which is exactly what happens with Simon and Delilah. Two characters both hiding secret pain, both characters who have had to "act" their way through life because of pasts that were traumatic and trying.
So often when it comes to emotional baggage in this vein, events that happened to the characters when they were children or teenagers, it can be easy to dismiss. It's never fun to read about a character's endless pity party, and the trick for the author is to write it in a manner where the characters don't come off as sad sacks. Delilah found herself having to tap-dance, put on a brave face, when her father died and her mother fell apart in her grief. She's "fine." Everything is "great." Because in reality? It's not great. Her mother has fallen apart and someone needs to keep the ship sailing. That's an easy act to keep up even after Mom crawls out of her hole. She can't very well tell Mom when she's "not fine" because what if that sends Mom back into a tailspin?
Simon's baggage is a doozy. Readers who love their heroes really damaged? Yeah, this is your guy. The best part of it is that not only is it horrifying and gut-wrenching, but it's also sadly believable. Simon believes himself a coward, traumatized by an event that wasn't his fault, but unable to move forward from it because his method of "dealing with it" was to shut down. In other words, it happened 15 years ago. The past is dead. Well, until the past comes back to bite you in the ass in the form of a key business trip and an assistant who looks at you with all-knowing and all-seeing eyes. It's a very tough subject for the author to address though a character, but she does it exceedingly well with Simon, an emotional brick wall at the start of this story. The author also, wisely, gives just enough back story on this event so that the reader is crystal clear on what happened, but we don't find ourselves wading through awful, horrible details.
It's a deceptively simple story, with zero in the way of external conflict (yeah, yeah - there's the mission of the business trip, but it's very minor). This is all about the characters, their internal conflict, and them somehow getting to the point where they realize that they cannot live without the other one. Not anymore. Because that business trip in Boston shows them both that how they have been living? Is not living at all. Simon's past isn't something that will magically go away now that he's admitted to himself and Delilah how he truly feels about her - but you know what? He's taken the first step. These two kids, I think they're going to make it.
Grade = A-