Sweet Agony by Charlotte Stein for the library system. Quite possibly the hottest erotic romance I've read in a long time. Why so hot? Because Stein "gets" what makes the sub-genre work. Throwing in kink and fetishes alone does not make a book "hot." It's the tension. It's the characterization. Holy mother of sweet baby Jeebus, it's the foreplay. And in the instance of Sweet Agony, it's the tension and foreplay that just about killed me D-E-A-D dead. Let me put it this way - reading this book in public was uncomfortable. But I mean that in the best possible way.
Molly Parker is a young woman one step away from slipping completely off the grid. Desperate to escape a less-than-ideal home situation, and living below the poverty level, she answers an ad for a live-in housekeeper and has the strangest interview of her life. Cyrian Harcroft has read too much Dickens and his house is straight out of Jane Eyre. He's standoffish, aloof, and has a series of bizarre rules. However none of this is off-putting to Molly, who recognizes something in Cyrian immediately, to the point where she's a swooning mess of hormones almost from the get-go. The fly in the ointment? Cyrian has "issues." Quite a lot of them. Cyrian's upbringing, a past that still haunts him, has left him so emotionally stunted that he lives a virtual recluse and abhors human touch. The mere thought of Molly invading his space and putting her hand anywhere on his person is enough to send him straight from bad mood into indignant rage. But our hero? He doth protest too much. Because even while he abhors touch, and is emotionally stunted? Molly scares the crap out of him and he can't get enough of being around her.
Cyrian and Molly both have baggage, and it's that baggage that actually feeds the sexual tension in the story. Molly because she's so desperate to get close to Cyrian, but is frightened that she'll make a horrible mistake and blow any shot she has in reaching him. Cyrian is so hung up in his anxieties and fears, and yet he cannot let Molly go. On one hand he wants to pull her close, but on the other he's completely incapable of making that move. So they tap-dance around each other, and take baby steps towards consummating their relationship in the traditional Insert-Tab-A-Into-Slot-B sense. I'm talking foreplay folks. Reindeer games. Pretty much everything other than "traditional sex" wrapped around the fact that you have one character who doesn't like to be touched.
Words cannot express how well the tension of this conflict translates into the sexual relationship between the characters. In a sub-genre that can so easily lose it's way, Stein reminds us with this book that erotic romance is the hottest when the characters are doing everything other than getting naked with each other.
That being said, it's not a perfect book nor do I think it will be a book universally loved by everybody. Stein works very well for me, but she does have writing ticks. First person (which I personally enjoy), and lots of internal monologues. I've loved many of her books, but I always walk away wishing there had been more dialogue. Also, I felt like the author probably could have spent more time on the baggage. You get the flavor, but not a full course meal of the angst. Which is kind of good thing, but I wanted a bit more to make the happy ending a bit heftier. You also need to go into this book with your Erotic Romance As Fantasy Goggles on, given the Gothic vibe that permeates much of the story.
But, quibbles. I have not had the most stellar reading year thus far, so any book that elicits a strong emotional reaction out of me is worth it's weight in gold. There were long stretches of this book where I was literally gripped by the text and I couldn't pull my eyes away from my Kindle screen. The tension, the glorious delicious tension! In the grand scheme of things this isn't even my favorite Stein offering to date, but it further illustrates what she does so well and why she works for so many erotic romance fans. Yes, the writing quirks are there, but she's currently saving the genre for me.
Final Grade = A-