Friday, October 5, 2018

Review: Billionaire Without a Past

Trigger Warning: Sexual Abuse

Readers never just read a book. All of us tug along our own personal baggage whenever we "consume" entertainment. I'm no different. I can read a 30-year-old bodice ripper and still enjoy it, but I usually do so while viewing the "problematic elements" through the lens of when the book was first published.  I read Presents in similar fashion. I don't see Presents as operating in "reality."  They live in a highly fictional fantasy fairy tale world and they're (usually) not the sorts of stories that I confuse with "real life."  Can Presents be problematic?  Lord, yes.  Do I really care?  Not really.  I like them for purely escapist fantasy purposes.  Presents are my cotton candy unicorn rainbow sprinkles reads.

Which what makes Billionaire Without a Past by Carol Marinelli a really interesting read.  In a lot of ways, it's Typical Presents.  In other ways?  It's kinda revolutionary.  Let me explain...

Nikolai Eristov is one of the Irresistible Russian Billionaires (he's the 3rd book in a series) who grew up in an orphanage.  He became fast friends with the other three IRBs (who all have their own books) but he ran away when he was around 14.  When a body turned up in the river his friends all assumed he was dead.  He wasn't dead.  He ran away because he was being sexually abused by someone who worked at the orphanage.  He eventually stowed away on a ship, was found by the guy who owned the boat, and he soon had a mentor.  Nikolai eventually becomes the head of a shipping empire and lives on a fabulous yacht.  Because, of course he does.  But now one of the other IRBs is getting married, Nikolai gets wind of it, and hopes to slip into the wedding just to see for himself his friend is doing well. The last thing he wants is to be spotted - which, of course, he is.  Given that everybody thought he was dead, it's kind of a surprise to see him.

Rachel Cary is a soon-to-be former ballerina with her own baggage.  The guy she was having sex with (theirs was one of those on-again-off-again-we-have-sex-but-not-really-a-"relationship" relationships) has dropped the bomb that he's in love with her cousin and they're getting married.  And of course this guy is a dancer in the same ballet company she's soon-to-be a former member of.  Because, you know, that won't make family gatherings awkward at all.  She's also running from her past.  She's got a completely screwed up relationship with her mother, thanks to Mom's many husbands and boyfriends - and yep, you guessed it - Rachel and Nikolai have a very painful past in common.

The difference here is that Nikolai's not dealing with his past comes in the form of having to tell his friends why he ran away and disappeared from their lives.  It's the embarrassment and shame of sharing what happened to him that's the hurdle.  But once he realizes his friends already know, this aspect of the conflict largely slinks off page.  Instead the focus turns to Rachel, and this is where the story gets interesting, at least in the realm of Presents Land.  Nikolai first admits what happened to him to Rachel and her reaction is less than ideal. She blunders it every possible way you can image.  Nikolai is pretty disgusted but soon thereafter is when he tells his friends - which is when he realizes (paraphrasing), "Wait a minute, Rachel is BFF's with the wife of one of the IRBs - the wife knew about my past already, ergo Rachel already knew which makes her reaction all the more weird.  Wait a minute....I wonder....did someone hurt Rachel?"

If this had been a Typical Presents, the hero would have assumed the automatic worst and this would have morphed into an Enemies to Lovers "thing."  Instead, our Presents hero is smart enough, self-aware enough, OBSERVANT enough to realize that there is more to Rachel's reaction than he first thought.  OMG! A PRESENTS HERO WHO HAS CRITICAL THINKING SKILLS!!!!!  Naturally the rest of the story involves Nikolai and Rachel spending time together and Nikolai helping Rachel share her trauma, to get her to open up, so she can begin to heal.

Is the book perfect?  No.  It's a Presents, so there are problematic elements, like when the heroine muses, "She was like a high-class whore and loving it..." as her relationship with Nikolai gets hot and heavy.  But in turn there are gems like when Nikolai and Rachel share their common pain and he asks her "Like you had no voice and that even if you spoke there was no one to hear it?"

There's also a lot of secondary characters given that we're Book #3 in a series, which would normally be fine, but Presents clock in at less than 200 pages so....not really that fine.  So yeah, is this perfect?  Hardly.  But it's really one of the more interesting Presents I've read in a long time.  I understand that the Russian Billionaire "thing" is an automatic non-starter for probably most readers these days (thanks for nothing current political climate) but there's interesting things afoot here.  I'd previously only read one Harlequin Medical Romance by Marinelli and also liked it - which means I obviously need to read more of her.  And, of course, she has a crazy stupid long backlist.  Somebody hold me.

Final Grade = B-


Miss Bates said...

I read HPs for the same reason. Hmmm, I had written off Marinelli after two separate attempts (found the prose strangely unintelligible), but this is making me rethink my decision ...

Wendy said...

Miss Bates: I wouldn't classify the prose as unintelligible in this book, but is it as crisp as some of my favorite HP writers? Picture me making that waffling hand gesture. But I was impressed that Marinelli didn't take this story down a well-trod Presents path. After the heroine reacts poorly to the hero's Big Secret it would have been SO EASY for this to go to Big Misunderstanding, Neanderthal hero territory doesn't.

I'm not left with the feeling of OMG MUST DOWNLOAD ALL OF MARINELLI'S BACKLIST RIGHT NOW - but I definitely won't hesitate to pick up more of her books the next time I succumb to a HQN sale.